Staff Picks: Books

Recovering Priceless Treasures

I stumbled upon the book Priceless:  How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures.  The founder of the FBI Art Crime Team, author Robert Wittman recalls a number of cases when he recovers stolen artifacts or artwork, working undercover convincing mobsters and corrupt collectors that he’ll pay big money for their stolen works.  It can take months, even years, of building rapport with the sellers or middlemen before setting up a sting which involves large amounts of cash, priceless works of art, and, very likely, guns or other dangerous weapons.

Wittman struggles with the widely accepted opinion at the bureau that art crime is less important than other types of investigations.  What is even more perplexing to those investigators that take this stance is that arresting those guilty of the theft or selling the stolen property is much less important than recovering the stolen works.  Regardless of this, each time something is recovered, communities celebrate the return of their lost treasures, whether they have been gone a few months or more than a hundred years.

The book starts and ends with talking about the Gardener Heist. The most valuable collection of stolen artwork in the world, the paintings were cut out of their frames in March 1990 and are estimated to be worth more than $580 million.  One painting, Vermeer’s “The Concert”, is estimated to be worth $200 million on its own!  We learn from the book that the heist is so well known and the paintings so recognizable, they could only ever be sold on the black market.

I really enjoyed reading Priceless.  Most chapters are their own little short stories.  This means the book works well for those with similar scheduled to mine that may not give them an opportunity to sit down with a book for long periods of time.  I greatly appreciate that Wittman rescues different types of art and artifacts all with the same dedication to returning them to their rightful owners.  Hope you enjoy this book as much as I did if it makes it onto your reading list!

American Folklife

Library of Congress American Folklife Center: an Illustrated Guide…the title sounds bland, but the book/CD set is anything but! It covers a wide cross-section of folk art and folk lore in the United States.

Most amazing is the accompanying CD. With 35 tracks in all, there are songs from all over the U.S., including a song sung by Zora Neale Hurston, storytelling, personal interviews with many different people about aspects of daily living and the impacts of war and slavery. Some recordings are over 100 years old. Altogether they demonstrate the richness and variety of cultural experience in our country. This would be a great teaching tool to help bring an American history topic to life for your students.


Library of Congress American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide

Coded Racism

When you hear the phrase "welfare queen," what do you think of? Although technically speaking the phrase itself - welfare queen - isn't racist, I think we all know it actually is. Indeed, it was meant to be, by the politician who carefully created the myth. This book is about the history of such language. Specifically, it's about how politicians use this language to gain votes by creating fear, by focusing demographically, by dividing smaller groups from bigger ones. As for the three main targets, we are talking about African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.

Although the author mostly blames Republicans and Fox News for racial politics, he does blame the Democratic Party too (he is not too kind to Clinton, for example, and he criticises Obama's strategy when it comes to race). Turns out the insatiable thirst for votes is bipartisan. But the major theme throughout the book is how the Republican Party specifically and intentionally became the white man's party in the late 1960's, beginning with the so called "Southern Strategy," which was summarized rather brutally by Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

This is a complex book on racism and politics in America.


dog whistle politics

An RCA Television?

In this book we received last fall, Smithsonian Institution Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture Richard Kurin provides a wealth of information regarding 101 objects held by that museum. At 762 pages, this publication was no small effort, I am sure. Organized by historical era, the author provides photographs and commentary on such items as the Appomattox Court House furnishings, Abraham Lincoln's hat, a bugle from the U.S.S. Maine, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, Thomas Edison's light bulb, a Ford Model T, Helen Keller's watch, Louis Armstrong's trumpet, a World War I gas mask, Dorothy's ruby slippers, a Berlin Wall fragment, Neil Armstrong's space suit, an RCA television set, and a door from one of the fire trucks that was at the scene of 9/11 in New York City. This is a quality publication from a very fine establishment.


The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects

Under the Egg

When Theodora’s grandfather dies, he leaves her a whispered message and the responsibility to care for her drifty mother, their Brooklyn townhouse, and $463 to hold it all together.

Over the course of this layered story, Theo and her new friend Bodhi work on deciphering the message, which sends them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jefferson Market Public Library, the Center for Jewish History.

Under the Egg is an adventure story that gives the reader terrific characters, World War II history, good guys and bad guys, and a lot of wonderful information about art.


Under the Egg

Vintage Toys

I love attending the Circus Maximus Antique Toy Show every May and November at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center. It's such a festive gathering, and the architects and contractors certainly did a nice job on the new and renovated buildings there. Looking at this book isn't quite as good as being at the show, but there are compensating factors, such as being able to read the histories of many toys I played with as a child. Arranged by type of toy rather than chronologically, the author provides two-page narratives with photographs of toys from the 1940s to the 1990s. Here are Play-Doh, Tonka Trucks, Rubik's Cube, Frisbee, Etch-A-Sketch, and Magic 8-Ball, along with many others. I especially enjoyed being reminded of the Vac-U-Form, since my cousin John in Grand Rapids had one. I can still remember how the plastic smelled when we heated it up!


Toy time! : from hula hoops to He-Man to Hungry Hungry Hippos : a look back at the most- beloved toys of decades past

A “Get the Facts” Story!

I appreciate that Tonya Bolden took on the awesome responsibility of researching this story. It is an amazing story with a wellspring of information.

Sarah Rector was a Creek Freedman born in Indian Territory in 1902. Her grandparents had been slaves to Creek Indians and her grandfather was among the Blacks in the Company D that joined the pro-union First Indian Home Guard which was formed to fight against the confederate army.

The story that Tonya Bolden tells is about Sarah receiving an allotment of land as a child and then, as fortune has it, after her father had been struggling to pay the taxes and would have given the land away he leases it to Devonian Oil Company and oil is struck big time. Sarah becomes the richest black girl in America!

And although, oil gushes from the wells on her land, that is not the crux of Sarah’s story. Her story is what happens after she becomes the richest child of the “colored” race. Besides a new house and a car, wealth brings newspapers articles, marriage proposals, half truths, lies, assumptions, mistrust and accusations to and about Sarah’s family.

Read this very interesting, troublesome and yet comforting story to see why Tony Bolden titled it Searching for Sarah Rector: the richest black girl in America. It will yank at your heart strings and send you tumbling in so many different directions that you will want to know more. I hope that I learn from the example that Miss Bolden set by telling both sides and explaining the half truths of this intriguing story.


Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America

Are Geniuses Made or Born?

Was Einstein one-of-a-kind? Was he original, special, unique—so unique that nobody else could have possibly come up with the theory of relativity? There will never be another Einstein. Or, was he made, a product of the time, a small part in a larger collaborative scientific environment—at the right place at the right time? There are many Einstein’s.

Of course the answer is probably in the middle, and we sometimes forget that there are many other geniuses in history and alive today. (Good Will Hunting is a great movie on the subject). Einstein does get a “special” place, “relatively” speaking; we give him more “space” and more “time” than any other genius (puns intended)—perhaps deservingly so. Look up genius in the dictionary, you see Einstein’s silly little wise grin.

The author of this book thinks that, on the whole, genius is a product of a particular culture and that major scientific advances could have been made by many different people at any given time. Nobody is that special. Science is collaborative. Einstein disagrees: “Einstein believed that ‘great men’ shaped history and that advances in the arts, in the humanities, and in science were due to the contributions of outstanding individuals who labored in the solitude of the creative process” (27). Isaac Newton particularly comes to mind here. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, a contemporary of Einstein, stressed the collective nature of science a little more.

To become an Einstein, I believe many stars must align. First, geniuses really do exist, they are different; they have an Intel Quad-Core processor, we have an abacus. My mom said life’s not fair and she’s right. Second, education and upbringing. If the flower isn’t watered, if the fire isn’t kindled, if the…you get it. Einstein was well read and widely read. “I am really more of a philosopher than a physicists,” he once said. The fact that he read Kant’s ideas on space and time has a lot to do with how he developed his own ideas. Third, a thriving culture of learning is required, especially for science types. Also, it’s very important to remember that you don’t have to be a “genius” be do great things (indeed, Einstein considered ‘moral geniuses’ like Jesus and Gandhi).

What do you think?


Einstein and oppenheimer

Another Look Back at the 1960s

There are many recent books about various aspects of the 1960s – 50 years ago. I’m drawn to these books as the time when I grew up but was not old enough to fully understand and appreciate the significance of many events.

I grew up in Pennsylvania and attended the NY World’s Fair in the summers of 1964 and 65. I remember many of the major exhibits. Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America tells the back story of the politics of the fair told against the times: the Kennedy assassination, the US and the Soviet Union, Malcolm X and racial issues, color TV, the Ford Mustang, Disney World, the Beatles.

This is a history of the mid 1960s with the World’s Fair as a reflection of the times. It is fascinating reading if you attended the fair or not.


Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America

The Mad Potter

The arresting photo on the cover of this book caught my eye and I was quickly drawn into the quirky world of George Ohs, who called himself The Mad Potter.

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1871, George Ohs was a largely self-taught potter, making items like no one had ever seen before. It wasn’t until long after his death that the art world came to appreciate what he called his “mud babies.”

The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius tells his fascinating story and is illustrated with intriguing historic photographs.


The Mad Potter

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster

Vacationing on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula’s scenic west coast shoreline is a wonderful choice. More than one hundred years ago Buster Keaton’s family and their vaudeville team vacationed in Bluffton, near Muskegon. Matt Phelan wrote and illustrated a graphic novel titled: Bluffton: My Summers with Buster.

The story, told in remarkable drawings, is about a boy named Henry Harrison who lives in Muskegon year round. Henry hears about the vaudevillians and is captivated by the performers and their animals! He and the young Buster Keaton form a summer friendship and they hang out and play baseball with other kids. When summer ends, kids go back to school, but not for Buster! Buster travels around doing vaudeville acts, then returns to Bluffton the next summer. Bluffton offers a glimpse into the life of one of the world’s most well-known silent screen actors and the few summers he lived on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Go back in time and watch Buster Keaton’s black and white slapstick silent films on KPL’s Hoopla site. It’s accessible directly from the KPL catalog, just enter Buster Keaton in the search field.


Bluffton: My Summers with Buster

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain

What do you know about “the other Ellis Island?” Between 1910 and 1940, Angel Island was the port of U.S. entry for thousands of Asians seeking a new life in America. Russell Freedman’s new book: Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain tells the story of those who passed through, those who were detained, and those who never made it any further into the U.S. before returning to their country of origin.

Especially poignant are the poems that were carved into and painted on barracks walls: “Nights are long, the pillow cold; who can comfort my solitude? . . . Shouldn’t I just return home and learn to plow the fields?” Discovered by a maintenance worker long after the facility closed, the poems have been preserved and incorporated into the public areas of this National Historic Landmark.


Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain

Everything but the Kitchen Sink (almost)

In this book we received just last year, Eric Chaline indicates that his survey of iconic machines goes back not "to the invention of the hand ax or wheel, but begins in 1801, with the first successful application of automation to weaving, which had until then been the preserve of the skilled artisan."  Among the 50 machines profiled with brief historical treatments and artwork are the Singer sewing machine, Underwood No. 1 typewriter, diesel engine, Kodak camera, Westinghouse AC system, Model T Ford, Black and Decker electric drill, Saturn V rocket, Magnox nuclear reactor, GE top-loading washing machine, Atari 2600, Sony Walkman, IBM PC 5150, and the Hubble Telescope. This is informative and entertaining at the same time. I was hoping to see my old friend/nemesis the Regiscope included, but didn't find it. Maybe it will be in the next edition.


Fifty machines that changed the course of history

Marie Curie

I have this vague recollection of learning about Marie Curie at some point, knew she had won the Nobel Prize, and knew she had worked in the area of radium and cancer treatment. That was about all I knew.

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family is a joint biography of Marie and her daughters Irene and Eve. Their struggles against the extraordinary prejudice towards women in science are described, along with their tours of the US to raise $50,000 to buy radium for research, and the health effects of their work.

Its not all science… the relationship between Marie and her daughters, Marie’s near nervous breakdown over a love affair, and Irene’s blindness about Communist regimes are all described.

This very readable book was written with the cooperation of Irene’s daughter who provided access to family letters and journals.

Those interested in science, women’s struggles in the sciences, mother / daughter relationships, the 1920’s would enjoy this book.


Marie Curie and her daughters : the private lives of science's first family

He Said, She Said

This is a high-school love story with a subplot about protesting arts funding cuts at their high school. The chapters bounce back and forth between Omar “T-Diddy” Smalls and Claudia Clarke, newspaper editor. They are both seniors at West Charleston High School in South Carolina. T-Diddy was born in the Bronx, but was sent to live with his uncle Albert two years ago to avoid trouble with the law. T-Diddy is the star quarterback of the Panthers and he is pumped by the defeat of their Powerhouse rivals: Bayside Tornadoes.

Although Claudia is turned-off by playas like T-Diddy, she soon realizes his clout with his social media skills at bringing classmates together to protest Arts cuts. T-Diddy is dedicated to restoring arts funding to their school and so is Claudia. They realize the power of collaboration. Their Principal, Dr. Brenda Jackson, aka Cruella, supports the cuts made by the school board, including the drama guild, the poetry club, the choir, and the marching band, library closure three days a week, and several teachers and staff lay-offs. However, these cuts become unacceptable to T-Diddy, Claudia, and the rest of the student body.

As Omar and Claudia spend more time together, their young love blossoms. Omar’s Uncle Albert supports their protests and provides knowledge he gained during the Civil Rights Movement.

This is definitely a worthwhile read for all teens and reinforces the power and strength of togetherness.


He Said, She Said

A star for Mrs. Blake

I saw A star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith on a recommended list, and I’m so glad that I did. Historical fact skillfully blends with fiction to make a story that’s hard to put down.

It’s the story of five very different women, brought together in 1930 by a single shared experience- each of them had a son who was killed in World War I. That heartbreaking fact made each of them each a “Gold Star Mother”, an actual United States government designation. Thousands of women all across the country were offered the chance to travel to Europe to visit the final resting place of their sons, with all expenses paid by the United States.

In Smith’s novel, the five “Gold Star” women who are the focus couldn’t be more different. Cora, the youngest, is a librarian from rural Maine. Then there is Minnie, wife of an immigrant Russian Jewish chicken farmer; Katie, an Irish maid from Massachusetts; Wilhemina, the emotionally fragile wife of a banker, and Bobbie, a rich socialite from Boston. Joining hundreds of other Gold Star women, they travel by ship to France, where unexpected experiences and chance meetings will change their lives forever.

I did a little research and discovered that in 1929, Congress passed legislation that allowed mothers and widows of sons who died in service between the years of 1917 and 1921 the right to make a “pilgramage” to Europe to visit the resting place of their son. By 1933, when the project ended, almost 6,700 women out of an eligible 17,389 had made the trip.

It’s a fascinating story, and well told. For a change of pace, also try author April Smith’s mystery series featuring FBI agent Ana Gray. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in those, either.


A star for Mrs. Blake

The People's Car!

In the 1950s and 1960s it was not unusual to see lots of Volkswagen Beetles around the Kalamazoo area. One that I remember with fondness was owned by two of my esteemed colleagues, FDC and GO, long past the time that the car was in its heyday. I always enjoyed seeing that car go by. Today there is the New Beetle in colors that vary quite a bit from the original Type 1. About six months ago KPL acquired a well-documented history of the VW Beetle. I particularly liked looking at the ads that are interspersed throughout the text. Anyone interested in automotive history or advertising practices of the mid- to late 20th century would appreciate this fine effort.


The People's Car : a global history of the Volkswagen Beetle

Courage Has No Color

Recently, I’ve come across some fascinating non-fiction books for kids. I’ve just finished Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone.

Full of wonderful photos, this book tells the story of the men who served in the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion out of Fort Benning, Georgia. These soldiers became America’s first black paratroopers and author Tanya Lee Stone uses their story to explore the role of African Americans in the military. This is a great addition to the literature of World War II.

Tanya Lee Stone also wrote Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, another book that sheds light on a little-known aspect of American history.


Courage Has No Color

A Librarian with a Statistics Degree?

Yes, I studied actuarial science before getting my library science degree, which statement probably prompts most of you to think, “I didn’t even know those two sciences existed.” But I bring this up, because I am currently enjoying reading/listening to three books on three completely different subjects, but where numbers and statistics play a big part: 

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by David Sally

Lewis’ book The Big Short is a well- known bestseller that explains the financial meltdown of 2008. It is fascinating and infuriating and may leave you swearing like a Wall Street bond trader (bond trader is worthy of replacing sailor in that cliché).

In Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant tells the story of the Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal study that started in 1938 and has followed almost three hundred men of which the survivors are in their 90s now. The study was started as an attempt to, “transcend medicine’s usual preoccupation with pathology and learn something instead about optimum health and potential and the conditions that promote them.” The conclusions are interesting as well as the different factors they study over time that they think might lead to optimum health and the changes in the definition of optimum health. 

Sally’s book The Numbers Game is to soccer what Moneyball (written by Michael Lewis who wrote The Big Short) is to baseball. As he crunches the numbers, he comes up with conclusions like launching corner kicks into the box hoping to score a goal is less valuable than just retaining possession with a short safe pass and that the team that takes the most shots on goal actually loses slightly more than half of the time. 

Isn’t it great that libraries have books to please all sorts of tastes? 


The Numbers Game



Some Good, Some Not

Here I go again. The library's non-cook is writing about a cookbook. But, the historical aspect of this book is what attracted me to it. There are 100 recipes here, one for each year from 1901-2000, included by 100 different chefs. To give the readers of this blog a flavor (pun intended) of what's in this book, I'll list a few of the recipes: 1909 - Baked Alaska; 1910 - The Comet Coupe (in honor of Halley's Comet that year); 1932 - "The Sun Also Rises" Punch; 1945 - Original Brain Tapioca Ambrosia (not the brain one thinks with, but because of the invention of the ENIAC computer); 1952 - Geraldine's Maryland Crab Soup; 1976 - Firecracker Fourth of July Beef Ribs (to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial); 1979 - Meatball and Potato Pizza. Some of the 100 sound delicious; others I would never consider touching. But I think that's how it would be for anyone looking at any recipe book, not just me. Clever and fun idea - yes. Good photos - yes. Bon appetit - maybe.


The way we ate : 100 chefs celebrate a century at the American table

Books with a Year Focus

Books focusing on one year are not uncommon, but there seems to be a rash of them lately, almost like a new emphasis in publishing.

Earlier this year, I read One Summer: America, 1927 – Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone…. what a summer, what an interesting time in our history.

I recently read and blogged about Ready for a Brand New Beat with a focus on the summer of 1964.
Now I’m reading The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America.

As I browsed our new nonfiction shelves yesterday I noticed Chicago’s Greatest Year, 1893; Constellation of Genius: 1922; and Japan 1941.

Just an observation for what it is worth on a cold, snowy day…


One Summer: America, 1927

Ready for a Brand New Beat

If you grew up to the music of the ’60s or grew up in Detroit or both, you are likely to relate to Ready for a Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America.

The question asked is… can a song change a nation? In 1964 “Dancing in the Street” was recorded at Motown’s Hitsville USA by Martha and the Vandellas. Martha Reeves arranged her own vocals and the song was released with the expectation it would be an upbeat dance song.

Ultimately it became a sort of anthem for the summer of 1964: Mississippi Freedom Summer, Vietnam War, free speech movement, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The song took on a new meaning for many and was eventually recorded by more than 30 artists or groups.

A good dance song or an activist anthem for the changing times…. either way, this is an interesting look at the mid-1960s.


Ready for a Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America

Inventing the American Guitar

If you’re interested in American guitar history, you’ll want to explore this comprehensive new work about C.F. Martin and his contemporaries’ early technical developments in guitar design and manufacture. In a relatively short period of time before 1865, C.F. Martin and other builders developed and incorporated significant refinements, most notably an X-braced top capable of withstanding the higher string tension to which a steel-stringed guitar would be subjected. While Martin may or may not have invented X-bracing, his guitars were to the first to exploit this bracing system on a large scale.

Of course, folks in Kalamazoo get pretty excited about that other well-known granddaddy of the American guitar, Orville Gibson, who famously applied violin building techniques to mandolins and guitars. Arched-top mandolins and guitars? Yep, invented right here in Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo is rightly proud of the stack and factory on Parsons Street where luminaries such as Lloyd Loar, Thaddeus McHugh, Ted McCarty, and others ran with Orville’s early ideas and made industrial design and musical instrument history.

From a business history standpoint, these two icons of American guitar manufacture are very different. Orville Gibson sold his nascent business and patent to a small group of Kalamazoo industrialists in 1902. Gibson Guitar relocated its headquarters to Nashville in 1981. The Heritage Guitar Company continues to build in the Parsons Street building today. C.F. Martin & Company, still located in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, remains a family owned business more than 175 years later.

Your Kalamazoo Public Library has lots of great books on guitar history. This new work is definitely worth checking out. I like it because it focuses on little-known technical history before the American Civil War – no dreadnaughts to be found here. The full color plates of many of the very earliest C.F. Martin instruments in this large format book are truly gorgeous to behold.


Inventing the American Guitar

British Stamps Meet British History

As librarians we frequently recommend books, music, and films to our patrons, but sometimes this goes the other way and our patrons suggest library materials to the librarians. This happened to me recently when a loyal KPL patron brought me this book and told me it might appeal to my interests. He was right. This 2013 title by Chris West uses a unique concept in that it covers the dual subjects of British postage stamps and British history. Mr. West takes 36 stamps and in a few pages gives a summary of the history behind the subject of each one. Topics include the coronation of Elizabeth II, the 800th anniversary of Ely Cathedral, and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. One can read any or all of the 36 chapters. The color illustrations of the stamps are beautiful and really enhance the impact this book makes.


History of Britain in thirty-six postage stamps

Books on Music: Hip Hop Family Tree

If you've been looking at the KPL Staff Best of 2013 lists, you've no doubt found something new that you hadn't seen before. For me, this years' big surprise was volume 1 of Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree, released in book form just last week- just in time to make it on my end-of-year list! Collected from nearly two years' worth of serialized strips on the weird tech/culture blog Boing BoingHip Hop Family Tree takes it way, way back to the formative years of hip hop. Starting with DJ Kool Herc spinning records at a local rec center in the South Bronx in the mid-70s and ending with the mainstream hip hop explosion of 1981, Hip Hop Family Tree covers a ton of ground in only a few years. Visually it's a treat as well, done in a yellowish, pulp comics look that wouldn't feel out of place next to a newsstand copy of X-Men in Times Square in 1979. Raw yet painstakingly researched, Hip Hop Family Tree is an essential read for hip hop fans. Ch-ch-check it out!


Hip Hop Family Tree


50th Anniversary of JFK Assassination

I was born in Washington D.C. four days after JFK was killed. As a result I always felt an affinity for, and curiosity about, Kennedy.

I was especially moved when my father and I had the chance to visit the 6th Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. We went to Dallas together on the last major trip my father took before he died. We watched TV clips of pivotal moments in Kennedy’s presidency. We looked out of the window from which the shots were fired, onto the white painted “X” on Elm Street marking the spot where Kennedy was struck dead. Dad told me about how he felt, living in D.C., expecting a new baby to the family, while memorial events for the fallen president were taking place.

After the museum, Dad and I went for dinner at a delicious Mexican restaurant nearby. As we were finally leaving downtown, we got a little turned around and drove down a few different streets before finding the exit onto the freeway. I felt chills when I realized-- just as we were clearly headed in the right direction-- that I was driving right over the fatal spot, the painted “X” on Elm Street.

As the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination approaches, you may wish to revisit that time, explore something new about Kennedy’s administration or ponder the controversies surrounding his death. We’ve got so much you can read, view and hear.

Where were you? America Remembers the JFK Assassination


A Different View of Detroit

Detroit has been in the news a lot lately, and there hasn't been much good reported. But, for a different view, I invite examination of this book that we received in the History Room within the last year. From the Wayne State University Press comes this beautifully crafted volume that documents the houses of worship of the various denominational groups in the city. The survey begins in 1848 and comes all the way down to the middle of the twentieth century. There are nice maps, close-ups of the stained glass and organs, views of the exteriors, and views of the interiors that sometimes even include the ceiling. I like the photo of the optimistic sign in front of the Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church which says, "GIVE THANKS ... It could be worse."


Detroit's historic places of worship

Ties That Bind

Do you ever listen to “StoryCorps” on NPR? Here it Kalamazoo, it airs on Friday mornings and I’m frequently within listening range as I’m getting ready for work. I’ve read several of the books that Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorp, has put together from transcripts of some of the recordings.

This new one, Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps, is a treasure. The very short, very personal stories are all good reminders of how we are connected to each other and how those connections bind us together in so many interesting ways.


Ties That Bind Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps

My Child Could Paint That!

Are you interested in modern art, but don’t know quite what to make of it? Do you just keep your mouth shut, because you don’t want to come across as stupid? Do you wish you had taken the time to take the Art Appreciation class in college instead of rushing through, taking only classes that fulfilled degree requirements?

Well, What Are You Looking At?  by Will Gompertz can help you out a bit in all three of these cases. Gompertz was the director of London’s Tate Gallery and is now the BBC Arts Editor. He introduces you to dozens of artists and art movements from Impressionism up to the present, showing how each fed off those that came before and often were rebellions against the ideas of the earlier artists. My favorite part was a fun story about Robert Rauschenberg asking Willem de Kooning for a drawing so he could erase it. It’s interesting how many of the names that we use to categorize different movements were taken from derogatory reviews of their work.

The book includes some color plates of art work in the middle as well as some black and white images sprinkled throughout the text, but you will find yourself searching the internet for many of the works of art that are discussed, but not depicted. You will want to see what he is talking about and you might find yourself making your own explorations online.

This is a really easy to read and fun introduction to modern art.


What Are You Looking At?

Five things you didn't know about Gandhi

1. The Tolstoy Connection: After reading The Kingdom of God is Within You, he admired the late Leo Tolstoy who became a radical Christian of non-violence and love. Indeed, Gandhi started a community that was named after Tolstoy. Gandhi also read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and was very interested in the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr.

2. He was obsessed with making clothes. Not only to be self-reliant, but as a way to free India from the British textile industry.

3. He had a guilt-complex about sex. Imagine the very young Gandhi at his father’s death bed. Lust, he says, pulled him away to his 13-year-old wife. His father dies as he indulges the pleasures of the flesh. He was not there at the most important, most sacred moment of his father’s life. This haunts him his entire life. Of course this doesn’t fully explain why he took an oath of celibacy (apparently his wife was okay with that), or why he would sleep next to young women simply to “test” his faith, or why he abstained from alcohol, drugs, fancy dress, fancy food, fancy everything. It was a religious virtue for him, a tradition he got from the Gita and the Gospels. He loved disciplining his body; fasting made him giddy.

4. He was a Christian. Well, actually he was a Hindu, Christian, Moslem, Jew, etc—a religious pluralist. “The Sermon on the Mount went straight to my heart,” he said.  But he was very partial to the teachings of Jesus, so much so that his fellow Hindus would accuse him of being a secret Christian (they were missing the whole point obviously). In the mud hut he lived in, he had one thing on the wall: a picture of Jesus that said “He is our Peace.”

5. At times, he was not a very good husband and father. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he was forced to marry at a very young age. He was controlling, jealous, and cruel. He left his family for long periods of time, both for professional and spiritual pursuits (many religious figures have this issue unfortunately). He was a task-master, raised the bar way too high for his sons, and treated them just like everybody else in terms of affection. His eldest son became a drunk that would slander his father in the papers. Yet he loved them all, just as he loved all Indians, all people. Just as he even loved the person who shot him in the chest three times, as he gasped his last breath: “Oh, God.”

And that’s the whole point of Gandhi; it's not about the flaws and pecedillos, it’s what you already know about Gandhi. Like Jesus, Mother Theresa, and St. Francis of Assisi, he really loved people as much as he possibly could. That's his legacy.


Gandhi the man, his people, and the empire

Gladwell's Back

For all those Malcolm Gladwell fans out there (which seems to be everyone considering how long his books have been on the bestseller list), you will be happy to know that he has a new book coming out on October 1st. In David and Goliath, Gladwell examines the lives of individual and team underdogs, illustrating how some disadvantages may lead to advantages in the long run and vice versa.

We already have many copies on order so you can put it on hold today.



David and Goliath


‘Hero on a Bicycle’ by Shirley Hughes

Would you be willing to risk your life to hide an escaped Prisoner of War? That is the ultimate scary decision that the Crivelli family of Florence, Italy must decide! This World War II story takes place in 1944 when Hitler’s Nazi army is fighting the English and Canadians in Italy. Paolo Crivelli is 13 years old and is ordered to remain at home, his mother is worried for his safety and that of her 16 year old daughter Constanza. When Paolo escapes at night and rides his bicycle into town, he is overwhelmed with fear when approached by the Partisans, or freedom fighters, who demand a meeting with his mother. Mrs. Crivelli is an English woman married to an Italian named Franco, who is in hiding. She makes the decision to hide the two prisoners!

The Crivelli famiy confronts head-on the perils, hardships, and heartache brought about by her choice. Will the Gestapo discover the two prisoners when they raid their home? There is very little food, how will they feed them? Will they ever see their father again? The bombardment in the nearby hills continues daily. Paolo and Constanza mature way beyond their youth as they experience the horrors of war. This is a really well written historical war story. Shirley Hughes is an English author and illustrator who has written more than fifty children’s books. This is her first novel.


Hero on a Bicycle

The Good Lord Bird

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

A Secret Effort Revealed

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

The Gospel According to Reza

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.

I recommend.



Beliefs matter in history! yells Rodney Stark

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

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing

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

March on Washington

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

The HeLa Cells

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 Lacks by 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

Breaking Stalin’s Nose

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

Hero on a Bicycle

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

The Borgias

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


Looking for a great audio book? I loved the audio version of “Dodger” by Terry Pratchett. On a dark and stormy night (what else) in Victorian London, a young 17 year old man named Dodger happens upon a young woman who is being kidnapped. He rescues her, and being a young man who makes his living from the streets, knows how to survive and protect her. It fast becomes apparent that some very bad men are trying to get Felicity back. Whirlwind action, mystery and history combine to make great listening. I’ve listened to lots of audio books over the years, and the reader can make or break a story. The reader here does a great job, and sounds as though he’s thoroughly enjoying himself.

Pratchett has some real life people make appearances, such as Charles Dickens as a sharp newspaper reporter, and also Sweeney Todd, the famous barber murderer. Dodger interacts with them, in what Pratchett calls “historical fantasy.” It’s so well done that it seems perfectly natural.

I really enjoyed this audio version from start to finish, and hope Pratchett does a sequel, preferably soon!



An Unconventional Look at the Presidents

Writing about the U.S. presidents has been a popular thing to do throughout most of the history of the country, but especially recently, whether individually or collectively. Here's a rather large volume that has two parts: 1) The Making of the President, 1787, and 2) Presidential Profiles. I found the profile section to be particularly enjoyable. For each president, author Davis gives biographical milestones, quotations, fast facts, a lively summary of the administration, online resources for further information, and a final analysis and grade. This latter item provides the capstone to each chapter. While I don't agree with all of the ratings, I was interested to note the rationale for each. Some are obvious and expected -- Washington and Lincoln get an A+. Three in a row get an F -- Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan. But there are some surprises among the rest. This is a nice work of history presented with an entertaining flair.



Don't know much about the American presidents : everything you need to know about the most powerful office on Earth and the men who have occupied it

Can Science Explain Evil?

Hitler (see my latest blog) is a perfect example. Can science explain Hitler's evil? Imagine we look into the child-brain of Hitler and see a complete lack of empathy and a 70% probably of antisocial personality disorder, depending on environmenal triggers. Could we prevent it from happing? That's one thing: science can help predict and prevent. But here's another thing: Does "lack of empathy" really explain what Hitler did? Does that encapsulate his evil? Can psychology explain him by describing the relationship he had with his father? And what about historical explanatoins of Hitler and the Holocaust? Doesn't that count? Not to mention religious accounts of evil, or philosophical ones like Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil"?

Simon Baron-Cohen says enough is enough. We need to understand evil in scientific terms in order to prevent it. Evil is "zero-degrees of empathy," which can be measured in the "empathy circuits" of the brain. Simple as that.

Well, not so simple. There is an emotional side to empathy ("I feel your pain") and a more intellectual, "cognitive" side ("I make it a rule to treat people nice"). Some people have one, some have both, some (Hitler, Ted Bundy) have neither. Emotional is more genetic, cognitive is more learnable. People with autism, for example, have trouble with emotional empathy but not with cognitive empathy. Furthermore, "zero-degrees of empathy" isn't always necessarily bad; people with Aspergers, for example, have a brain that makes them genuis's and musical prodigies (and they can live perfectly moral lives).

Wait a minute. Not so simple, still! There is an attitude of scientific arrogance here, a "step aside centuries of theologians, philosophers, social theorists, Goethe, Stephen had you're fun, now let the men in white lab coats explain everything for you." Yes, science can explain empathy. Yes, it can help to prevent and promote it (doesn't religion do that too?). Science cannot explain the whole concept of empathy or evil anymore than it can explain the whole concept of life, or pain, or death, or joy, or love.

Is that your reaction?

Either way I loved the book and highly recommend it; very readable.


The Science of Evil

Hitler: product of Germany, Evil, or Really Really Bad?

This book is not a biography of Hitler; it’s a biography of the biographers of Hitler, it’s a story about the Hitler scholars, an all-you-can-eat buffet of the full gamut of explanations for the murder of 6 to 17 million people (depending on how you count). And by “explanation” we usually mean “whose fault”? Who’s to blame? Germany? Hitler’s one testicle? Judaism? Christianity? God? The Jewish doctor who treated Hitler’s mother with cancer? Nobody? Everybody? The Nazi Party? Abstract Historical Forces? Hitler’s incestuous past, secret Jewish blood, failed artistic striving, political ideology, psychosis? Or do we simply blame Hitler himself? 

Take a deep breath. I had to. There is a level of absurdity to all of this. Why do some of these explanations sound ridiculous, narrow and short sighted? We have to remember historians are people too; they can be inaccurate, biased, and nasty. That’s the beauty of this book. It’s gossipy. We see the arrogant scholar, we see scholars tag-teaming and ridiculing each other, personal attacks, fame, red-faced, passionate, proud. Perhaps the competitive atmosphere of academic publishing is really to blame, where everything begins with disagreement instead of compatibility. Chapter 1: everybody is wrong. Chapter 2: I’m right and here’s why. Or, perhaps the historian was right that said there is no explanation for the Holocaust and never will be.  

  1. Where do we draw the line between explanation (“he was crazy”) and culpability (“he was responsible”)? 
  2. Did the Holocaust answer the question: is human nature more bad than good? Can there be “no more poetry” after the Holocaust?  
  3. Is the hatred of Hitler a potentiality in us?  
  4. What does this say about belief in God? Do we find God absent and uncaring or do we find God in the acts of heroism (the other half of the story)?  
  5. Is history driven by abstract historical/socio-political forces, or by individual people?  

Complex phenomena have complex explanations, but what really matters is the lessons that history gives us. The old adage “history repeats itself” is the whole point of doing history, in my opinion. Once we learn the patterns of hatred, we can predict them and stop them. How do you get people to hate? You separate them, call them “others,” you use the word “war,” as if to make them “enemies.” You call them “germs” or “cockroaches” or subhuman. You censor. You get rid of the media. Hitler pillaged the Munich Post. You dehumanize them and de-individualize them. Hitler passed a law that made all boy Jews have one name and all girls have another. You use esoteric, secretive, ambiguous language that hides your hatred as something “intellectual.” People eat it up. Hitler did that. So did Heidegger and Nietzsche in a way. You retell history in a way that fits with your hate story against the Jews. Hitler and the Nazis actually staged a fake battle to accomplish this.  

If you want to dive into the life of Hitler, try a different biography. If you want to dive into the sea of Hitler scholarship, I recommend this book


Explaining Hitler

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is a beautiful novel that artfully weaves together the stories of several women into one shared experience. Set in the wake of World War I, it follows the lives of a group of Japanese women who came to California as picture brides, knowing very little of the men to whom they would be married. Told in the first person plural, the narrative begins with the young women as they traveled across the ocean to start their new lives. Marriage, childbirth, earning a living, raising families, and being part of a community, they all learned to navigate life in this strange place. Eventually, what they came to think of as home was taken away as the Second World War called into question their loyalties. At times heartbreaking, and other times wryly funny, this book seems to be more about what actually happened than any purely factual account could contain. It is an album made up of hundreds of snapshots on a loose time line that brings to life a piece of history that is so often forgotten.


The Buddha in the Attic


Washington Wins the Election!--with Beer.

Imagine the young George Washington, early in the political career, placing a keg of beer or rum next to the polling place. Now imagine him winning. Now imagine this happening all the time. Who needs to buy an election when you have beer, right? And we wonder why people don’t vote anymore. Just kidding.

Yes, this was real, this happened. In fact, James Madison stuck his nose up at the practice. He was going to win his election without booze, darn it. Well, James Madison lost. The fact of the matter was that alcohol had a much more prominent place in early American life, not just politics. The entire day, as this book details from cock-a-doodle-do to shut-eye, was filled with excuses to drink. There were official, city-wide dedicated breaks for guzzling, reminiscent of Muslim daily prayer rituals. Alcohol was God’s blessing. It was giving to babies and kids and sick people for a variety of ailments. Water wasn’t trusted, or known about, or sanitary half the time. Times were hard.

But “spirits” were hard too. Soon rum was demon rum, causing broken homes, useless husbands who beat their wives and children. Alcohol was causing too much harm. Soon the people who championed moderate drinking, like Benjamin Franklin, were fighting with more extreme people—temperance and prohibitionists. Get rid of the temptation was their motto. My favorite image of the prohibition movement, largely started by women who were sick and tired of not only a drunk husband, but no freedom to do anything about it—my favorite moment is when they decided they would kneel in front of saloons and pray and sing away the demon rum. And as I’m reading I think to myself: “No! Don’t do it; bad idea; this won’t work!” Well, guess what? It did work. For a short while at least.

This book is mostly about the movement to ban alcohol, which I didn’t expect at first. But it’s still good, interesting, and well written. For a similar book see Drink: a Cultural History of Alcohol


The Spirits of America

Bird in Hand, Pennsylvania?

People who know me are aware that I enjoy discovering unusual names. In fact, readers of this column will know that too, since I've reviewed books that contain listings of them. But this book is different. It is a listing of American place names. Of course, I immediately turned to the Michigan chapter and found Bad Axe, Christmas, and Germfask. Take a look to see why Mr. Gallant also included Schoolcraft. Or, how about Okay, Oklahoma. Igloo, South Dakota. Correctionville, Iowa. Mermaid, Delaware. Toast, North Carolina. Well, you get the idea. And there are probably even stranger ones that I just haven't gotten to yet.


A place called Peculiar : stories about unusual American place-names

Grand Times in Grand Rapids

During my youth I frequently went to Grand Rapids with my family so we could see my very fine uncle, aunt, and cousins. Since I have many happy memories of those visits, I was attracted to this book that includes approximately 50 two- and three-page stories about the city. Originally appearing in Grand Rapids Magazine, these are called in the subtitle 'pieces of Furniture City history.' One would expect to find some things about former President Gerald Ford and Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, and they are there, but there are also many accounts of business, recreation, transportation, and social life. I was pleased to see a reference to the now-defunct Kelvinator plant on Clyde Park Ave. because my eighth grade class from here in Kalamazoo went there on a field trip to see refrigerators being made. The many black-and-white photographs add to the appeal of this book.


Grand times in Grand Rapids : pieces of Furniture City history

I have dreamed a dream, and now that dream is gone from me

Utopias--perfect places of peaceful bliss--have been dreamed up from the beginning. They were planned, hoped for, written about, satired on, remembered, started and broken. Many civilizations looked backwords to find it: the Garden of Eden, the "good ol' days"; Rousseau imagined the "noble savages," uncivilized people not currupted by civilization. Many look to the future and wait for it: heaven, Nirvana; an age where technology and science solves all human problems. Many look to the present and find it here or coming soon: "the kingdom of Heaven is at hand." Stephen Pinker argues that now is the most peaceful time in human history. Whitmans says "to me every hour of light and dark are miracles."

The problem with utopias, as history shows, is that they rarely work and sometimes kill people. In other words, it's a slippery slope into dystopia (a chaotic, violent state). That's because if you have a perfect goal in mind, everything else seems expendable to acheive that goal--see the problem? It's the whole "you have to break an egg to make an omlette" thinking, only on a grander scale.

What amazed me most about this book is the sheer number and scale of utopian communities that have been developed over the years. America had a lot of them (I talked to a man at the library that was part of a utopian community based on B.F. Skinner's Walden Two!). They definitely hit a peak in the 17 and 1800's, and a few religious-based ones in American are still going today (Amish, Mormon communities).  I noticed that almost all utopian dreams involve the sharing of wealth and property, or, at the very least, equality of rights among all people. What I didn't like about the book was that it didn't go in any detail about particular communities, making it read more like an enyclopidia or coffee table book.


Searching for Utopia

Covert, Michigan: Ordinary or Extraordinary?

A Stronger Kinship is a story about a small town that decided to be fully integrated 100 years before most of the country was integrated. Fully integrated--think about that. At the same time when our nation was fighting a war over race-based human bondage, African Americans in Covert owned property, were elected to powerful political positions, send their children to the same schools as the white kids, conducted business together, were friends, went to the same churches, read the same books from the same library. Covert started on the right foot and never looked back.

Covert was a diamond in the rough, a city on a hill, a promised land for people of color. But this only makes sense if we have historical perspective. Living in the northern states as an African American (or Native American) was no picnic. The author quotes an editorial from the Illinois State Journal, 1862, which captures the feeling of many African Americans after Emancipation:

"The truth is, the nigger [sic] is an unpopular institution in the free states. Even those who are unwilling to rob them of all the rights of humanity, and are willing to let them have a spot on earth on whcih to live and to labor and to enjoy the fruits  of their toil, do not care to be brought into close contact with them" (quoted on pg. 45).

If you learned in school that slavery and discrimination were "southern" problems that the "north" fixed in the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation (as I did), then you might wonder why Covert is so special. Sadly, that history is as glossy as when people say the war was about "states rights." The truth is that slavery existed in the northern states too. A book from our reference collection says:

"a British census taken in 1782 counted 179 slaves among the 2,191 people living along both shores of the Detroit River. In 1796, 31 adult black slaves and 16 black children, presumably the children of slaves, lived in the Township of Detroit among a 'free white' population of 238. The actual number of slaves was probably higher becasue many families in Michigan owned Indians as slaves..." (The History of Michigan Law, p. 20).

Even when the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in 1787, it still existed in practice. Also, I think the ban was repealed in 1807 for ten years (because the Indiana Territories wanted white slave holders to move into their territory for economic reasons). And this is to say nothing about other forms of discrimination that existed in myriad forms at various times. As depressing as it is, slaves were freed only to find out they were not free.

So what was the secret of Covert? Why did Covert happen? Here is the beauty and the thesis of the book. There is no secret. The author, who is coming to KPL to speak by the way, says it best:

"Why did Covert happen? Although it may be the first question that comes to mind, it may not be the most powerful one. The question Covert should raise is, why not? Our puzzlement over Covert reveals a hidden assumption that racism is the norm, that unfairness and injustice are the natural patterns that the nation falls into if given half a chance. That assumption is not surprising, given the  horrific and sorrow-filled history of race relations in this country, but Covert reminds us that that terrible history was a choice. That choice may have been made by millions of whites over many decades, but it was a choice, not a given" (208).

It's the story of ordinary people making ordinary decisions. Perhaps they seem extraordinary because "we have such an impoverished sense of the capabilities of ordinary people" (Charles Payne, quoted on pg. 201). It's easy to wallow in the depression of history and throw your arms up. What's your view of human nature? What do you think of yourself? And as you think about these questions, people are doing acts of kindness. We cannot take anything away from the amazing men and women in this book--they were giants.


A Stronger Kinship

Code Name Verity

There’s been a lot of talk in the book world about this teen title: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. This is the summary from the library catalog: “In 1943, a British fighter plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France and the survivor tells a tale of friendship, war, espionage, and great courage as she relates what she must do to survive while keeping secret all that she can.” It’s a complex, poignant, horrific, and deeply moving story, told from the perspectives of two incredible characters.


Code Name Verity

Noah Webster and His Words

What are the top two most popular books printed in the English language?

The Bible is the number one most popular book printed in English and the second most popular book printed in English is Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language.

Noah Webster was born on a farm in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1758. Noah didn’t want to be a farmer, he wanted to be a scholar. He went to school at Yale and graduated in 1778 and became a teacher. He soon realized there were no books about America; Noah wanted American schoolbooks! America was a new country and America needed a national language and government. Americans were spelling words any way they wanted, the same word might be spelled ten different ways in ten different places. So, Noah wrote an American spelling book so that Americans would spell every word the same way, every time, everywhere. Noah had the publisher put a blue cover on it so that people could just ask for the “blue-backed speller.” Noah’s blue-backed speller taught spelling and it also listed important American dates, town and states! Two years later he published his second book, a Grammar [noun: study of words; rules for using words].

Then Noah had another big idea: to write a dictionary [noun: a book listing words in ABC order, telling what they mean and how to spell them]. His book would be 100 percent American and it would include new American words, such as skunk, dime and tomahawk. He decided to show where the words came from, all the different origins. He began this wonderful dictionary in 1807 and he completed it nearly twenty years later! Noah’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1828. Noah’s words DID unite America! This is a great book and the bright, fanciful illustrations will keep your attention. [noun: the act or state of applying the mind to something].


Noah Webster & His Words

All Aboard.....

I have recently written about great buildings of the world and buildings of Michigan. This month I will narrow the focus by highlighting a book that describes, in words and photographs, historic railroad stations in our state. Michael H. Hodges has presented a nearly-200 page volume in which there are 31 Michigan railroad stations, both active and inactive. The photographs are beautifully done; the narrative is well-written. I of course turned to the chapter on the Kalamazoo station on Rose Street and I was not disappointed. I learned several new things about this building even though I have worked less than a mile from it for a long time. Other area stations included are Battle Creek, Lake Odessa, Lawton, Muskegon, Niles, and Three Oaks. As I looked over the acknowledgements in the front, I was very proud to discover that two of my Local History colleagues, Beth Timmerman and J. Patrick Jouppi, are recognized as having assisted the author in researching this material. Former co-worker Lynn Smith Houghton, now of WMU Archives, is also credited. Next, I think it would be great if Mr. Hodges would at some point do a second volume. Bangor and Lacota, among others, would be interesting subjects.


Michigan's historic railroad stations

A Look at Detroit

Detroit is described as our country’s greatest urban failure from once being a capitalist dream town.

As several reviewers have written, Detroit City is the Place to Be, captures the beauty and nobility of the city as well as the hardship and chaos. It is part history and part biography of a city and its people; a commentary on postindustrial America with some limited optimism for the future. The author grew up in the city and weaves in some personal narrative as well.

This may sound familiar to those who grew up in Detroit or Michigan. For those of us who were not here during the glory days of Detroit, it helps understand how and why Detroit became “a once-great American metropolis gone to hell” as one reviewer wrote.

This book provides the framework for our state, even our nation, to grapple with the issues facing Detroit.


Detroit City is the Place to Be

Francis the first Stigmata case

Needing direction, he randomly opens the Bible three times: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” What! Second, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics.” Wow. Ok, so maybe the third won't be so extreme? Nope: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” This sums up Francis and the Order he started.

You know him as the Saint who talked to birds and flowers, but the real Francis was much more gritty, suffering, alone, real. He would live on a mountain for a month and come down with Stigmata wounds, and die soon after, and die in pain, and be glad for it. He was a rich kid who went to war, became depressed, gave up everything, and, as he says, "left the world" for a grueling life of serving God and the people who needed it most. The one thing that disgusted him--people with leprousy--became his passion.

What I like most about this "new" biography is that it has two separate parts. The first is the story of Francis' life, the best that the author can tell from the evidence. The second part is all about the scholarly debate, which I did not read and therefore was thankful for the separation.

Frank Sinatra said "I did it my way." Francis said "No one showed me what I should do, but the Most High himself revealed it to me, that I ought to live according to the form of the Holy Gospel." What's interesting is that the Medieval Church patterned their life according to the Acts of the Apostles, and denied that the wandering lifestyle of Jesus of the Gospels was appropriate anymore. It all worked out in the end, as Francis was whole-heartedly accepted by the Church.

And he liked animals too.


Francis of Assisi a new biography

Long Live Rock

Books about rock stars are flooding the bestseller lists lately.  Back in November, there were four in the Top 10. 

Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young

Who I Am by Pete Townshend

Rod by Rod Stewart

Bruce by Peter Carlin (about Bruce Springsteen, but you probably guessed that)

I've read excerpts of Townshend's and Stewart's books in Rolling Stone magazine.  Townshend really opens up and shares his thoughts and emotions in an artfully written, intellectual style.  I'm not that interested in Rod Stewart so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his authorial voice and fun stories about his friendship with Elton John. 

If you are interested in rock history, we have all these books and many more.


Who I Am

Tolstoy's Christianity has only Five Commands

1. Be not angry. Which means "judge not," "condemn not," don't ever think you are better or separate than other people. Tolstoy looked back on his life and realized that most of his anger came from separating his class of people (wealthy intelligent writers) with the vulgar, ignorant masses. He would eventually love these people and despise his old life of wealth and pride. He says "I understand now that he alone is above others who humbles himself before others and makes himself the servant of all."

2. Commit not adultery. He thought marriage made two people one, which made separation very painful.

3. Take no oaths. Even though it does come from one of Jesus' teachings, you might wonder why people think this is a big deal. First, it waters down your normal honesty. "I swear on my mother's grave!"--does that mean you normally lie? Second, think Abraham Lincoln. Whenever he talked about what he really believed, he said slavery was wrong. Whenever he said slavery was ok as long as it kept the Union together, he would talk about his "oath" of office and his "oath" to uphold the constitution. In other words, his oaths were forcing him to do things he normally wouldn't do. Last, think of Nazi's simply doing their duty or serving their superiors. That's what Tolstoy means.

4. Do not defend yourself by violence. Tolstoy interpreted Jesus command "resist not evil" and "turn the other cheek" in a very straightforward way--never resort to violence. So did Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi, etc. He thought this was the key to saving humanity and the only way to end violence.

5. Make not war. Follows from 4. Tolstoy was especially disturbed that the Church would support war, but he understood that it was because they were so intertwined with the State.

The story of Tolstoy's life and conversion, as told in his "My Confession" is an incredible story, partly because he's such a great writer (War and Peace, Anna Karenina, which he actually dismissed as sophistry later in life).

This blog is based on My Confession; My Religion; The Gospel in Brief, by Leo Tolstoy. If you like Tolstoy, non violence, Confession-type  narratives (think Augustine and Rousseau), or theology, you might like this book.


Tolstoy a Russion Life

Back on the road to Wonderful!

Well, Christopher Paul Curtis has done it again! The Mighty Miss Malone is not only about a girl but its about a family. It's about a family doing everything it takes to survive together and then just doing what it takes to survive.This story is not only about a family's struggles with the economic aspects of the Great Depression but also the political aspects. With this historical fiction Mr. Curtis has proven to me that the fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 were more than just heavyweight bouts. He calls them the perfect storm.


The Mighty Miss Malone

Sacks: Science is my left brain, Religion is my right

If you don't like the recent trend of science and religion yelling at each other, you might like this book. Jonathan Sacks argues, like many before him, that science and religion are compatible, "more than compatible," harmonious. Like two sides of the same coin and the right and left hemispheres of the brain, they need each other. He actually takes the brain analogy literally. Science is a left-brain activity; it analyzes things, pulls them apart, explains them. Religion is a right-brain activity; it joins things together, tells stories, focuses on relationships, and interprets things. They are simply two different ways of being, two different perspectives on the world. A thing is a thing and a person is a person.

He also makes a very interesting point about why we Westerners confuse science and religion. He blames it on the Greeks! The Jewish religion, he says, was not scientific or philosophical at all. Neither was early Christianity. But then Christianity was married with Greek philosophy and science. Saint Thomas Aquinas, for example, created a beautiful system of Christianity based on Aristotle's science and metaphysics and the Bible. Science and religion became one. Once we figured out Aristotle was wrong, it chipped away at religion too, etc. Get it? They became enemies because they were on the same turf.

What I liked most about the book is that the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks knows his science and religion and philosophy (of course he is definitely an Old Testament scholar), which is nice. Usually these books are written by a scientist pretending to be a theologian, or a theologian pretending to be scientific. The book starts strong and ends strong, but the middle gets repetitive and loses its' vigor. Not a bad read!


The Great Partnership

Woolman says loving your kids too much supports slavery

John Woolman--18th Century American Quaker, reformer, mystic, abolitionist, writer, wandering preacher--argued that excessive love contributed to the institution of slavery. Yes, that's right--excessive, gluttonous, kinship love. The argument is quite simple: parents who had slaves could save more money for their childrens' futures; they could give them more stuff, provide a secure life for them. John Woolman, of course, thought this was narrow-minded, immoral love; not a Christian love at all. It's loving one person at the expense and misery of another. And he wasn't arguing against the sort of slave-holder you think about. He was arguing against his fellow Quakers who had slaves! They were the guilty kind, the kind who wouldn't beat their slaves, who perhaps didn't like the institution alltogether; the kind who said "necessary evil" and "at least it's a way to convert them to Christianity". John Woolman loved his children too. But he loved them as he loved everyone else (I know that's hard to comprehend, but the biography portrays his life that way...he barely mentions his family in his own autobiography; he is a rare man indeed).

Woolman's life-long project to end slavery by literally walking around America talking to the slave-holders themselves, is only a fraction of his beautiful soul. Much like Martin Luther King Jr. thought that racism was part of a larger problem (hence, he devoted his life to anti-war, pro-union, anti-poverty projects too), Woolman's life was filled with nothing more than an obsession to purify his heart of sin, to figure out God's Will, to be humble, to wait for God to speak to him, to pray, to travel across the world. What amazed me so much was this man's obsession to be morally perfect in God's eyes, as he understood it along the way. The title of the book--The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman--is apt. For him the big things and the little things mattered. At one point he realized that an unbleached hat would last longer than a bleached hat. This was practically a moral crisis for him. For the rest of his life he wore completely unbleached (white) clothes (which made him look very weird). He had similarities with the saints that William James analyzes in Varieties of Religious Experience. But what makes his soul most beautiful is his character, how he chose to carry himself: humble, meek, mild, understanding, loving, patient, hopeful, steady, grateful. He showed love to the slave-holder; that's why he was successful in changing their minds.

This is not the best written biography by far, although it's good scholarship. It repeats a lot, and reads much like a long, extended commentary of Woolman's own Journal. But the subject matter is fascinating and worth it.


The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman

Yet another anniversary

So far this year I have written in this space about several books that were published because of an anniversary of the topic. Well, here's another one, and it's a 60th anniversary that's happening very soon. In early November, 1952, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower was elected president. This election was historic for many reasons, and this biography by Jean Edward Smith covers the entire life of Eisenhower, with an emphasis on his service in World War I and the time after that. This is a hefty volume, and it's probably not expected that everyone who encounters it will read the whole thing. Yet, it's worth looking at, even if only to read selected chapters or to see the photos and editorial cartoons interspersed with the narrative.


Eisenhower : in war and peace

Black and White and Red All over: The Story of a Friendship

I’ve known three pairs of people now, who have been a kidney donor and a recipient to that donated kidney. I know bits and pieces of their stories, more from the donor’s perspective than the recipient’s. In each case, the donor knew instinctively that she was meant to give her kidney, and each time, she was sure she would be a “match” to the recipient, which in fact she was.

So I was intrigued to read this moving account of journalist colleagues, who grow to be friends and eventually "kidneys-in-law” (their humor,) when Martha McNeil Hamilton donates her kidney to Warren Brown for transplant. It was poignant and illuminating to learn, from Brown’s perspective, the difficulties he lived with prior to the transplants. (Previously, his wife donated a kidney to him. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for Brown’s body.)

Brown and Hamilton each describe growing up in a segregated South—she, a white female, and he, a black male. As colleagues at the Washington Post, they moved beyond the segregation of their youth, to develop a strong friendship over the years. Both were journalists at the Washington Post during and after 9/11, so part of their story covers how they dealt with the stress of post 9/11, in the news media world, in addition to the health crises and personal challenges they faced.


Black and white and red all over : the story of a friendship

Young Michelangelo

I have been familiar with many of Michelangelo's works since college when I took a class titled "The Arts and Letters of Michelangelo".  A wonderful class, the professor greatly elaborated upon the Neoplatonic views that were circulating at this time among philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and how Michelangelo incorporated these views into his artwork.  I was happy to find that this book does the same thing, as well as, discusses the political and cultural climate of Italy in the late 15th to early 16th centuries.  The author John Spike seems to have a keen insight and understanding into the artist.

Young Michelangelo tells us about Michelangelo's upbringing including his beginning as an artist under the direction of Domenico Ghirlandaio and in the garden of Lorenzo de' Medici.  We are introduced to Michelangelo's first works, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, as well as sketches he did after frescoes by Masaccio and Ghirlandaio.  These extant works show how versatile and talented Michelangelo was as a young artist in different mediums.  The book talks about his Bacchus, David, Pieta, and other early commissions before going into details about his long and complex relationship with Giuliano della Rovere, a.k.a. Pope Julius II.  We see the beginnings of his longtime habit of taking on more in commissions than he could finish and leaving projects in an unfinished state.

The author, John Spike, is very good at explaining the different stresses in Michelangelo's life and interpreting his response to these stresses, whether they are the political climate of his native Florence, the wishes of a demanding patron, or competition from other artists.  The opinion of many art historians is that three Italian Renaissance artists catapulted themselves above the rest in their ability to produce extraordinary artwork at this time.  Michelangelo was one of these artists, the other two being Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio.  Spike also discusses Michelangelo's interactions with these two artists.  Michelangelo was put in direct competition with da Vinci through a fresco commission in Florence; Raphael he writes off as a young kid of mediocre talent until he also comes under the commission of the pope.  Contemporaries who knew each other personally, it is very interesting to me to hear how they interacted with and perceived one another with their very different attitudes and quirks.

Spike has done a lot of research to write this book.  I would like him to write a Part II that would be a biography of Michelangelo's later life talking about his continued issues with Julius II and his issues cooperating with his assistants.  In my opinion, Young Michelangelo seems to abruptly end.  There is no conclusion and the last work of art the author talks about in the work is actually a fresco by Raphael.  The format of the book also seems a bit strange.  The first chapters are of a nice length but the very last chapter of the book reminds me of a run-on sentence being much longer.  It strikes me as unfinished and lacking conclusion; the subtitle is "the Path to the Sistine", so please, tell me about the Sistine in another book!  I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Michelangelo's early life though.  It amazing the kinds of work he was able to produce at such a young age!


Young Michelangelo: the Path to the Sistine


Aquinas' Five Proofs for God

If you love philosophy of religion like me, and like to wander the stacks in the 100/200's area, then you love reading about arguments for the existence of God, the rebuttals, the replies to the rebuttals, etc. It all begins with Saint Thomas Aquinas. In only a few pages, he gives us his famous five:

  1. The First Mover: everything is moved by something else. The tree was moved by the wind which was moved by the weather which was moved by something else, and so on. This could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with a "Prime Mover," a being that gets the ball rolling. That's God. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher that was not a Christian, believed in a Prime Mover (Thomas actually snatched the argument from him).
  2. The First Cause: everything that happens is caused by something else that usually comes before it. What caused you?--your parents, their parents, their parents, and so on. Because every physical event must have a cause, this could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with an "Uncaused Cause," the beginner of the Big Bang so to speak. That's God. Check out Dean Overman's book for a current example.
  3. Contingency: When I was a kid I remember sitting on the couch thinking: what if nothing existed at all? No universe. What would that be like? I closed my eyes and could only picture black space, but then I thought to myself: black space is not nothing, it's something! I couldn't imagine or even think about it; it was such a shocking thought. When we look around we see things that pop into existence and then die. They never had to be in the first place. What if everything was like that? If nothing has to exist, then we can imagine at time when nothing exists--no matter, no space, nothing! This is impossible because you can't get something out of nothing. Therefore there must be at least one thing that must necessarily exist. That's God. Check out Paul Davies "fine-tuning" argument in Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life.
  4. Degree: we use terms like "good" and "honest" and "noble" that point to some standard of perfection, some benchmark. When we say a person is honest, we are saying they have some degree of that virtue. There must be a concept of perfection, which helps us to know this. That's God.
  5. Teleology (Design): everything seems to be directed towards some goal, or end, or purpose. Even ants build complex houses, and everything seems to work together. The orchestrator behind all the design is God. Francis Collins, the DNA guy, has a similar argument in The Language of God.

Although these are Christian arguments, they are used for other monothestic religion (Islam, Judiasm) and probably others (they began as Greek arguments). The history of these five arguments is incredible; they have been transformed, altered, defended, rebutted, discarded, revived. Philosophy of Religion and Karen Armstrong's The Case for God will give you a good overview. Also don't forget Blaise Pascal's argument that, if you were a betting man, you should at least bet on God. And you must read William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, a very nuianced and pragmatic argument.

As for rebuttals, a good start would be The Atheist Debater's Handbook, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God (author doesn't think they're good reasons), God: The Failed Hypothesis, and The Portable Atheist.


Aquinas Shorter Summa

Wolf Hall

An avid history fan, I’m listening right now to a wonderful audiobook version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. It’s a look at the England of Henry VIII, when Henry decided to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, and marry Ann Boleyn. Mantel portrays these turbulent political and religious times through the life of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was very much behind the scenes, and powerful. He came from humble beginnings. But he contrived to know the right people and got things done, first for his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, and later for Henry VIII, when Wolsey fell out of favor with the king. Cromwell is not always portrayed in a favorable light; here Mantel has made him a wholly believable and not unsympathetic figure.

Wolf Hall was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and it’s well deserved. Mantel is historically accurate, and the characters and times are fascinating in their detail. Library Journal’s review says, “There will be few novels this year as good as this one,” and I would concur. Author Hilary Mantel was born in England. She studied law at the London School of Economics, and has lived and worked in Botswana and Saudi Arabia, before returning to live in England.


Wolf Hall

The Most Exclusive Club

What a fascinating look at the relationships between former presidents in The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.

Harry Truman first reached out to Herbert Hoover as they jokingly decided to form a “Presidents Club” to start the relationship between the current and former presidents.

Relationships and rivalries, some backstabbing and clashing egos are all described. However, all club members, no matter their political party, care deeply about the country and truly understand the challenges that go with the job.

The insights and stories are amazing in this well-written, most readable book.


The Presidents Club: inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity

Howard Thurman visits Gandhi and creates an Interracial Church

Most people don't know Howard Thurman (I didn't). You could say he was the John the Baptist to Martin Luther King Jr., the grandfather of African American nonviolence, a Gandhian, Christian, mystic, poet, and preacher.

Howard Thurman's childhood memories: burying his father because nobody else would (whites-only undertaker in their town); listening to the funeral sermon, which "preached my father into hell" because he wasn't officially Baptist. Thus we have the two things Howard Thurman fought against his whole life: Segregation and institutions.

But far more powerful memories sustained him: "The woods befriended me" and gave [me] "a sense of belonging...the ocean and the night gave me a sense of timelessness...death would be a minor thing." Of all the evils swirling around him, he would take solice in the storm and the God of the storm.

Like Tolystoy he became a Christian mystic, making a large distinction between "the religion of Jesus," which "offers me very many ways out of the world's disorders"--and Christianity. He felt God directly in nature, much like Emerson's "Original Experience"; a Chrisitian beyond Christianity: "the things that are true in any religious experience are to be found in that religious experience precisely because they are true; they are not true simply because they are found in that religious experience...this is not to say that all religions are one and the same, but it is to say that the essence of religious experience is unique, comprehensible, and not delimiting." This permeated his relationships: "That afternoon I had the most primary, naked fusing of total religious experience with another human being of which I have ever been capable."

A pivitol point in his life is when the president of his college called them "young gentleman": "What this term of respect meant to our faltering egos can only be understood against the backdrop of the South of the 1920's...the black man was never referred to as 'mister,' nor even by his the end of his days, he had to absorb the indignity of being called 'boy,' or 'nigger,' or 'uncle'." He was an amazingly disciplined intellectual:

the library was my refuge and my joy…at last the world of books was mine for the asking. I spent hours each week wandering around in the stacks, taking down first one book, then another, examining the title, reading the foreword and the table of contents, leafing through the pages, reading a paragraph here and there, getting the feel of the book and familiarizing myself with writers across centuries who would in time become as closely related to me as my personal friends…I kept certain books in the bathroom. Others I read only during the ten-minute intervals between classes…I would hasten to the next classroom, take my seat, and read until the lecture started.

He advocated for African American rights but, like his friend Martin Luther King Jr., he did so in a wholistic and strategic way: "Thurman would speak about race before white audiences, but on his own terms, and in his own way." He said: "This is always the problem of reformation: To put all of one's emphasis upon one particular thing and when that thing is achieved and the Kingdom of God has not come, then the reformer sits in the twilight of his idols."

After visiting Gandhi, Thurman really got to thinking about how to fix the problem of segregation and race problems in America. As a minister, he thought: how in the world can we tell the government to integrate white and black if our own religion is the most segregated institution in the country? It was embarrassing and wrong. Therefore, he helped create and became the minister of a truly interracial, multiculural church in San Franscisco. This was the legacy of Howard Thurman. Obviously his struggle continues.

Martin Luther King Jr. would listen to him preach in Boston: “He always listened carefully when Thurman was speaking, and would shake his head in amazement at Thurman’s deep wisdom” (192). Don't forget to supplement this book with Howard Thurman's autobiography With Head and Heart.


Visions of a Better World


What's the Difference Between Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and JFK?

Benjamin Franklin was a paragon of self-taught education. To learn how to write he literally took scholarly articles apart and put them back together (like a type setter would). Abigail Adams had no choice; being a woman in the 1750's, she had to teach herself. Andrew Jackson, an Irish farm kid, grew up in a sort of cowboy environment, open land, the time of the Regulators, no law, British invading and pillaging. His education was honor and violence.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sojourner Truth was growing up as a slave after the war when Noah Webster was writing his grammar book, arguing for abolition and a national language and education system. But her master could care less about emancipation, so she (literally) walked off to freedom with her one year old baby, living in the woods and finding work to survive. She realized that freedom was another form of slavery, and then became “Sojourner Truth,” a traveling minister and truth-teller like Frederick Douglas (When she met Lincoln he apparently tensed up and called her “Aunty,” as he would his washerwoman).

The boy Lincoln, who was obsessed with reading and mostly self-taught, said “among my earliest recollections, I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand…that always disturbed my temper and has ever since.” This thirst and curiousity made him. Lincoln thought that reading separated him from the Natives. Thocmetony, aka "Princess Winnemucca," a Native "turned American," actually agreed. She grew up surviving, then tried to create a school for her people: "A few years ago," Sarah wrote the parents of her students, "you owned this great county; today the white man owns it all, and you own nothing. Do you know what did it? Education." Her school was to be different; it would not have this motto--"You cannot become truly American citizens...until the INDIAN within you is DEAD"--as the current ones did. It would be culturally integrated. Sadly, it failed and her people were virtually wiped out by the Trail of Tears.

Henry Ford, industrious to the core, had to learn by physically touching the machines (sort of like how Einstien had to visualize math). He thought education gives you a fundamental base, but after that vocational school is best (Booker T Washington might agree). Du Bois represents the beginning of high schools, which were actually created to Americanize the Irish immigrants bringing "discord, immorality, and poverty." Du Bois, a very poor boy with a poor, single, handicap mother, became the black kid that excelled among white kids; he was proving something. A man named Frank Hosmer became his mentor: teacher, president, progressive school reformer--a man who became part of Du Bois's "talented tenth" way of thinking.

Helen Keller is the story of the blind prodigy child. Rachel Carson (environmentalist) was a product of the "Montessori" school movement (back to nature, learn like the Natives). Elvis learned music at a poor, Pentecostal church. In fact, most of these great Americans grew up poor.

So what is the difference between Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and JFK?

Just as Carnegie thought libraries were "the great equalizer" between rich and poor, Horace Mann (founder of public schools) thought "free schools" were going to be the great equalizer. But many Americans were simply left out entirely (Sojourner Truth, Abigail Adams), and even those who could be schooled (Andrew Jackson) weren't schooled the same, as the chapter on JFK's education shows--privileged, private, rich. Even the teenage JFK says "how much better chance has [the] boy with a silver spoon in his mouth of being good than the boy who from birth is surrounded by rottenness and filth. This even to the most religious of us can hardly seem a 'square deal'." Talking about private schools, JFK's classmate said if you weren't "incorrigibly stupid or lazy" you could go to "any college you wanted."

I highly recommend this book. The author interweaves the stories brilliantly.


How Lincoln Learned to Read

Why schools are the way they are: the story of reform

If you agree with Emerson that "there is no history; only biography," then you will love the way Peterson describes the history of educational reform in American through its major players. 

Before Horace Mann there was no State Board of Education, no "normal schools" to teach the teachers, no standard textbooks. After Horace Mann there was. John Dewey, sick of monotonous drilling and memorization, thought that teaching methods must match the student (not the other way around) and that arousing curiosity mattered. Before Martin Luther King Jr. there was black and white schools; after MLK they were mixed. Albert Shanker headed the teachers' rights movement, creating powerful unions. William Bennett used political sway to make school excellence a national issue. James Coleman was disgusted that schools resembled factories, and he thought more school choice was the answer. And last he looks at Julie Young and the potential of Virtual (online) Learning.

It's a gripping story and all the fun is in the details, especially since most of these reformers created unintended consequences, monsters they didn't see coming. And whether they indended or not, schools began as local, small, religion-based, women-taught, extensions-of-the-home. They ended as large, centralized, heavily regulated, state-run giants. The author also makes much out of unions and there tendency to block certain reforms, and you get a sense that the author is coming from a fiscally-conservative republican perspective. This book is fascinating even if you're democrat.

For similar books check out Left Back: a century of failed school reforms, The Little Red School House, Don't Whistle in School, The Underground History of American Education, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: how testing and choice are undermining education.  

On segregation, check out Root and Branch and Silent Covenants. On pro-union history, try NEA: the first hundred years; for anti-union, check out Teacher Unions: how the NEA and AFT sabotage reform and hold students, parents, teachers and taxpayers hostage. On school choice, try Voucher Wars and Breaking Free and Rethinking School Choice.



Saving Saves

God, Earthquakes, Lisbon and Enlightenment

Surviving an earthquake is one thing, but the aftermath is a groundswell in itself. How to you interpret natural disasters? How to you cope with tragedy? On All Saints Day in 1755, when most Lisbonians were in church, a giant Earthquake rocked the city. Then a tsunami. Then a fire. Lisbon was destroyed.

A very Catholic and religious city at the hight of the Inquisition (Shrady describes it as medieval and anti-enlightenment), Lisbon couldn't help but interpret the catastrophe as God's divine wrath, a call to repentance, a punishment for Lisbon's greed. The hell-fire sermons were brought out, dusted off, and shouted from the rubble pulpits.

But of course not everyone interpreted it this way, religious or not. Immanuel Kant (my favorite philosopher), argued it wasn't a moral phenomenon but a natural one. And if you had to read Candide in high school or college, you know that Voltaire took this as the perfect opportunity to expose (with satire) the "optimistic" philosophy of Leibniz and the rose-colored glass of theologians--that with God at the helm we must live in the "best of all possible worlds." Rousseau, criticizing Voltaire, takes a more middle position.

But it was a man named Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo who was on the ground, who rehabilitated the city, and who eventually tried to "enlighten" it. This book is mostly about him. He rebuilds Lisbon, becomes a powerful leader, kicks out all the Jesuits, builds a bunch of universities that teach science (natural philosophy), obolishes slavery, and puts a lot of people to death (not for heresy, but for people who are not with the program). The author describes him as an ambiguous despot, but a despot nonetheless. And for every political push there is a counter-push. Carvalho gets removed, ridiculed, and replaced with a Queen Maria who repeals all his progress. That's European history for ya, right?!

Since this book is more about the history of Lisbon, I recommend this book more for the history aspect, less for the theology/philosophy.


The Last Day

From Somalia’s nomads to the Cat Walk

Desert Flower is a true story of a young woman’s journey from the Somali desert to the cat walk in New York City. I think most of us would assume this story is about a past practice and we would like to think that what happened to Waris would no longer happen to young women in any country, but we need to be aware that the archaic customs of the past are still very much a plague to the young women of Somalia. The purpose of Waris Dirie’s book Desert Flower was to raise a loud cry to violence, genital mutilation, and arranged marriages. For a few goats and camels elderly men can arrange a marriage to prepubescent girls. Waris felt that she needed to do something to stop the useless suffering of the young women of her country. Waris’ book tells of a little girl trapped as a Desert Nomad, a daughter to be bartered and a strikingly beautiful model. In the movie Liya Kebede does a beautiful job of taking us on Waris’ journey and helping us to see the turbulence a past practice causes.


Desert Flower

The Misunderstood Mary Boleyn

In my last blog, I talked about a dual biography I had read about Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile, two daughters of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.  Katherine of Aragon was for quite a while Queen of England being Henry VIII's first wife.  In divorcing her, Henry broke with the Pope and Roman Catholic Church who refused to annul his marriage.  The woman he took as his second wife was the infamous Anne Boleyn, who ended up being tried for treason and beheaded in 1536, three years (and four pregnancies that failed to produce a male heir) after her marriage to the king.  Sister Queens peaked my interest in the Boleyn family and Tudor England and I have decided to explore a few of the many books written about these historical characters.

Now, I thought that my family could be dramatic at times, but it is nothing compared to the Boleyn family!  Anne had two siblings, Mary and George, and was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn and Elizabeth Howard.  Shortly before finishing up Sister Queens, I was browsing the shelf and found a book solely devoted to Mary Boleyn by Alison Weir and decided this is where I would begin my survey of the Boleyn family.  According to the introduction, Mary Boleyn has historically been portrayed inaccurately in a number of publications, and even more so in recent fiction works.  I have to confess that I didn't know Anne Boleyn had a sister until reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory a few years ago.  I knew this was a fiction title, but I did draw some conclusions about Mary based on it when I should not have.  (This can many times be an issue when reading historical fiction…where does the history stop and the fiction start?)  In this book, Mary becomes Henry VIII's mistress and bears him a son named Henry.  Well, in real life, Mary really did have an affair with Henry VIII.  And did she bear him a son?  This we know to be untrue since she did not have a son until years after the affair had ended.  Her daughter, however, may have been Henry VIII's illegitimate child.  There is no proof that this is actually the case, but Weir provides evidence for this by analyzing different monies and honors that were bestowed on Mary's daughter and her family throughout her life. 

Provable facts about Mary Boleyn are few and far between.  We do not know when Mary and the King's affair took place, how long it lasted, how it started, why it started, or how either person felt about the affair.  Our main proof that it happened comes later in the years after it had ended when Henry was trying to cover his bases and make sure his marriage to Anne would be considered legitimate.  Only two letters remain written in Mary's own hand, and compared to her well known sister, she is not often mentioned in other sources.  Another hypothesis Weir spends time considering is the idea that Mary may not have been mistress to just one king, but two!  In addition to Henry VIII, there is some evidence that she may have also been the mistress of Francis I, King of France.  Her embarrassed family tried to keep this a secret as well as keep Mary in the shadows for much of the rest of her life, according to Weir, which may be why we have so little contemporary information about her. 

Truthfully, I am not sure I gained much concrete knowledge from this text.  There is so little verifiable information on Mary Boleyn.  This does not, however, mean that I didn't enjoy the book.  This is a very well researched book in which Weir pokes holes in many past assumptions historians have unfairly made about Mary.  Weir does a good job holding up Mary, giving her the benefit of the doubt where she has simply been critically judged and pigeonholed in the past.  As a woman of the court in Tudor England, she had little control over her life but exercised her strength when given the opportunity.  My favorite part of the book is when Weir talks about Mary's second marriage.  William Stafford was "below" her status but she married him in secret for love rather than familial gain.  In a letter to her sister, then queen, and King Henry VIII she writes, "So that for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little store by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him…For well I might a had a greater man of birth, and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well".  As you can see from this short snippet of the letter, Mary is unapologetic and unwavering.  She took a huge risk in her second marriage, and paid consequences for it, but she held strong to the marriage and husband she had chosen.  This is how I will choose to remember Mary Boleyn.


Mary Boleyn: the Mistress of Kings

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

You never know when or where you'll find a book recommendation.  I was attending a memorial service for a friend's mother, when one of the speakers mentioned The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.  My curiosity was peeked. 

The story takes place shortly after the end of WWII and is told through a series of letters.  The main character is Juliet Ashton, a writer looking for a new story.  She becomes friends with the Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Pie Society members and goes to visit them.

The story tells about how the islanders survived the occupation.  All of this is told to Juliet as she becomes friends with the islanders and finds out how the literary society came to be.  I had no idea that the Channel Island's had been occupied during the war.  Yes, sort of a war book, with sad moments, but also with great humor. 


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society 

The Decline of Violence

Wait a minute: has violence declined? The first 361 pages argue that it has. A significant decline since records began; all forms that can be measured: murder, rape, war, etc. You might be thinking: wait a minute, World War I, World War II?! This is where you might disagree with what Pinker means by "violence has declined". He means the rate has declined, not the total number of people dying from it. A war that killed 2 million people back in the 8th Century, Pinker says, is much worse than a war that killed 2 million people nowadays, because there was less people then (it killed a larger percentage of the world back then). Get it? So taking the world population in consideration, Pinker is definitely correct that the rate of violence has gone down (all his graphs show a steep decline from top-left to bottom-right). In other words, if hypothetically you could pick any time period to live in, you may want to pick now because overall you have the least probability of dying from violence (unless you get dropped in Wash. DC!).

Another piece of his argument is to say that many forms of violence have been simply eliminated; no more witch burningno nukes have been used, no great powers have fought since 1953, slavery has almost been eliminated, and so on. There's a whole new moral consciousness, caused by numerous developments (social, political, economical)--it's not that human nature changed. 

Some people are a little worried about Pinker's arguments because they sound "old fashioned"; a little "arrow-of-history-ish" (history is pointing us towards some goal) which has a bad track record; or they sound a little ethnocentrist (civilized people are way better than primitive people who live in a state of war constantly); or a little democracy-biased. Plus I bet some historians are saying "who does this linguist think he is!" He is aware of these concerns, which is part of the pull to read the book (and watch his youtube videos).

Whether you have reservations or not, this book is an enormous endeavor, an audaciously large project that I cannot help but appreciate as such. It's part of a new trend to "mathmatize" history, using numbers to tell the story. I am amazed that one man could write on so many topics, pulling from so many sources. And it helps that Pinker is a master at writing good sentences that flow. There are hundreds of talking points. If you like history and evolutionary psychology, I recommend this book especially (oh did I mention it's really long?).


Better Angels of our Nature

Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend

When I read that Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend was Library Journal’s pick for top nonfiction title of 2011, I was intrigued.

Author Susan Orlean has written a wonderfully readable book, not only about Rin Tin Tin, the iconic dog star of films and TV. Her story ranges widely and touches on the early history of Hollywood and films, the bravery and use of animals in war, and much more.

The story begins on a battlefield in France during World War I. A young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovers an orphaned German shepherd puppy in a bombed out kennel. He has left his own dog behind in America, and adopts the small pup. Duncan, who was raised in an orphanage, feels an affinity with the abandoned dog, whom he names Rin Tin Tin. He immediately senses that this is an extraordinary dog, and is fortunately able to bring “Rinty” back to the US. The rest, as the saying goes, is history—and what a ride it is!

Susan Orlean is a respected reporter who spent ten years researching and writing this book, the story of a dog born in 1918 and his descendants, and the people who loved them and helped to insure their legacy.

This is a book for all people who have ever had or loved a dog.


Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

Sister Queens

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain of the 15th century were important figures in history.  Sister Queens tells the story of two of their daughters, Katherine and Juana.  Born Spanish princesses, both women became queens - Katherine was the wife of Henry VIII, King of England, and Juana married Phillip of Burgundy before becoming heir to her parent's kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.  Both women were raised to fill the role of queen to further the goals of their country of birth and produce heirs.  It seemed this was well underway with the politically advantageous marriages they had secured, but things began to turn for the worse quickly, especially in Juana's case.

Juana's marriage started out well, but she was soon forced into submission by her husband, Phillip.  Developing her own method of retaliation to this treatment she would throw tantrums and refuse to eat or go to church for days.  These acts fueled her adversaries' claims that she was psychologically unsound.  After Phillip died, she had an opportunity to escape this tyranny but only for a short time, for soon after, her father had her confined in Tordesillas.  Once her father had died her captor swiftly became her own son.  Portrayed throughout history as "Juana the Mad", author Julia Fox sheds new light on the ways Juana fought against her oppression.  The figure history has passed down to us seems to be very different from the actual person Juana was.

Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII also went through ups and downs, as those who have even a slight idea of how Henry VIII lived probably know!  Much more extant information survives about Katherine than Juana, and through her letters and actions readers get the impression that she was a very strong and determined woman, one which did not obey the notion that the world in this time should be controlled by men.  Leading England in battle, negotiating marriages for herself and other young women, for many years being the primary confidant and partner of her powerful husband…she was resilient and independent.  She had learned the art of politicking from her mother, which she had all but mastered.  But the tides began to turn for her after a number of failed pregnancies, her later life destined to be much different from her earlier years.

This book gives readers very interesting insight into the world of the 15th and 16th century European leaders.  Author Julia Fox uses great primary references to help us understand what may have been going through the minds of the characters found within the pages of her book.  The subtitle to the book is "The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile".  Their lives were indeed tragic, but noble as well.  Fox does a great job of intertwining the lives of the sisters.  She is also very good at showing the development of the characters throughout the story.  Readers can see how the events in their lives changed the characters' personalities and how specific individual characteristics became more dominate with time.  This double biography has been a read I have thoroughly enjoyed!


Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile


100 Years Later

On April 15, 1912, the date RMS Titanic sank, my grandparents were living and working on a farm in northeastern Iowa, the state in which they settled when they came to this country. Fifty years later, as a young boy, I was at their home, which by then was in Kalamazoo, and one of the Titanic movies appeared on their television. Now, 50 years after that, I can still remember what an impression that disaster had made on my grandmother and how she gave me her recollections of the event. The 100th anniversary of the sinking is this month. I'm glad KPL has my favorite book on the subject (pictured to the left), which was originally written in 1912 and reissued in 2012.


Wreck and sinking of the Titanic : the ocean's greatest disaster 

Mrs. Kennedy and Me

Jacqueline Kennedy was a woman who desperately wanted a private life. Clint Hill was the man who was charged with giving her as much of a private life as he was able.

 As one of two Secret Service agents on the First Lady’s protective detail, he tells their amazing story in Mrs. Kennedy and Me. Although the stories in this memoir are fascinating, what is most compelling is Mr. Hill’s fierce dedication and loyalty to Mrs. Kennedy as she lived a life that was so very public.


Mrs. Kennedy and Me

Eulinda, makes herself come true!

Eulinda’s story takes place during the civil war in 1864. Her father was the plantation owner and although he was kind to her, he was willing to do only so much. She had been acknowledged as his daughter, lived in the plantation home, and had received an education. She received castoff clothing from the master’s stepdaughter and was treated a little better than the rest of the slaves. That much of the story is fictional but most of Numbering All the Bones was built on facts taken from records on Andersonville Prison. The Andersonville prison was the most horrific prison in the American Civil War. Ann Rinaldi added real characters and real facts to her fictional story. William Griffin was a real ex-confederate officer, who came along and saw the 13,000 bodies and knew that the prison was something he had to set right. He tolled, first paying ex-slaves to work along side of him, out of his own money. They dug graves, painted headstones and planted flowers. It became Dorence Atwater ambition to dig up the Negro bodies to get the names off the toe tags on the bodies and reburied them with their names on the headstones. And then there was Clara Barton…but, I’ve already told too much.

Even though, this book was written for children it really captured me and I enjoyed reading how Eulinda made herself come true.


Numbering All the Bones


Lincoln would lean back on his chair to do his thinking. He would think about his speeches months in advance, writing and re-writing (yes it appears people wrote their own speeches back then). He would mumble the words out loud, get friends to read them aloud; and when it came time, he would read his speeches slowly (as I'm sure he did in Kalamazoo). What amazed me about this biography is that Lincoln's so called "eloquence" came with a lot of work. As a poor young man he would walk six miles to get a grammar book. Largely self-taught, he would devour books on grammar and speaking. Lincoln was very fond of the Psalms and used them for his speeches. For example, the main point of his Second Inaugural comes from Psalms 19:9: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln really was a brave man. On his way to office he said: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.” By "it" he meant the American promise "that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." Indeed he was.

Now his track record on slavery is, according to the many biographies and books, ambiguous. He was sort of a split personality. His personal attitude towards slavery seemed to stay the same throughout his political career; but his political attitudes changed.

First Inaugural address:

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Later, after the war breaks out, Garrison and others are screaming for Lincoln to make a statement on slavery, to the make the war to be about slavery (as I said in my previous blog, people like Emerson wouldn't even let his son enlist for this reason). Lincoln replies immediately:

“if I could save the union and not save a single slave, I would do it. If I could save the union and save all the slaves, I would do it." Which this ends: "personally I wish all men were free." He also said “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”

Eventually he does make slavery the cause of the war:

“Without slavery the rebelion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” (181).

He realized that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free” (187), or as Martin Luther King would say, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” and “I must not ignore the wounded man on life's Jericho Road, because he is a part of me and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me."


the eloquent president

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson once dreamed that the world shrunk into an apple. An angel told him to eat it, and so he did. A fitting image of transcendentalist thought! The world is so small we can eat it; the mind prevails,"there was never any thing that did not proceed from a thought"; a single human being can do anything.

By most accounts Emerson was a great American, a great speaker, and a great man. He was a transcendentalist, a nature writer, a Unitarian minister, a teacher, a literary figure, a speaker (yes, that was his profession!), a poet. He was anti-slavery, anti-establishment, pro-women's rights (all when it was "unfashionable"); and, even through family deaths and sorrows, he was a champion of unbridled and unparalleled optimism. But what impresses me most is the degree to which he thought for himself, went his own way, and fearlessly lived.

At 24 Emerson visits the South. He's at a bible study. He can hear a slave auction outside. He and his wife, part of the Underground Railroad in Boston, would always be vocal against slavery. On the Emancipation Proclamation he said: “[Lincoln] has been permitted to do more for America than any other American man.” When the war was only about saving the Union, he wouldn't’t let his son enlist. He supported John Brown. In 1844 even the churches wouldn't open their doors for his speeches, which fueled his distrust of organized religion: “God builds his temple in the heart, on the ruins of churches and religions."

On the unity of all persons: “There is one mind common to all individual men” Like Thoreau's chant "Simplicity!" Emerson's chant was "Identity, identity! Friend and foe are one stuff, and the stuff is such and so much that the variations of surface are unimportant.” On us and Nature: “There is a relation between man and nature so that whatever is in matter is in mind.” On beauty: “all is in each” and “the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms—the totality of nature.” He was so convinced in the power of a single individual that he said "properly there is no history, only biography." In other words, if you want to learn history, read a bunch of biographies--history is nothing but a list of great and terrible people. But we are all potentially great people: “each fine genius that appears is already predicted in our constitution.” In a stoic and Christian way, he thought groups of people only make things worse. After witnessing the French Revolution, he says “It is always becoming evident that the permanent good is for the soul only and cannot be retained in any society or system...the world is always childish." On courage, peace, and nonviolence Emerson was like Martin Luther King Jr: "Courage is grounded always on a belief in the identity of the nature of my enemy with my own [nature], that he with whom you contend is no more than you."

Yes I recommend this biography, but it's a commitment (due to length).


Emerson: Mind on Fire

Def Jam Recordings

To recognize the first 25 years of the label, Def Jam Records has released this huge coffee table style book that celebrates the artists and personalities that helped take Def Jam from a scrappy young label that focused on getting the fresh new sound of hip hop on record to a bonafide pop culture icon. With photographs from across the labels first quarter century and essays from its founders, artists, and top executives, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label chronicles all that has made the label what it is today and walks those of us who grew into adulthood alongside Def Jam down a beautifully constructed rap music memory lane.


Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label

Books about Books, What to Read Next, and other tools

We are what we read. But how do we decide what to read? Normally we don't have a systematic program for our reading life. Perhaps a friend told us, or the "customers also bought this..." on, or our last book mentioned it, or we heard it on NPR or Oprah. These are all great, but there's many other ways. Try the Now Read This through our website. Or, if you want a Read-a-Like based on an author you like, try our Books and Authors database (or try Good Reads or LibraryThing).

But, if you want to get super serious, we have tons of books that are about books (i.e. bibliographies, "treasuries," "anthologies," "companions").

Based on Age:

1001 children's books you must read before you grow up, 100 best books for children, The Book of virtues for young people : a treasury of great moral stories, Black Books Galore! Guide to great African American children's books about girls, 500 Great Books for Teens, Disabilities and disorders in literature for youth : a selective annotated bibliography for K-12, The Ultimate Teen Book Guide

"I just want the classics!" (usually this means great literature, not necessary from the Classical period):

Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Magill's survey of world literature, Literature Lovers Companion: the essential reference to the world’s greatest writers—past and present, popular and classical, Assessing the Classics: great reads for adults, teens, and English language learners, The modern library : the two hundred best novels in English since 1950, Harvard Classics series (has the actual writings)

By Genre:

Short Story Writers, The Essential Mystery Lists, Harold Bloom writes several books, e.g. on British Women Fiction Writers, Asian American Women Writers, Major Black American Writers, Classic Science Fiction Writers, and more.

To find the major books in an academic field, like philosophy or physics or astronomy, look for an introductory book. They usually have primary sources and "further reading" sections.

Racial or Cultural Identity:

African Writers, Sacred fire : the QBR 100 essential Black booksConcise encyclopedia of Latin American literature, Native American literatures : an encyclopedia of works, characters, authors, and themes

Movements and Places:

Literary movements for students : presenting analysis, context, and criticism on commonly studied literary movements, Promised Land: 13 books that shaped AmericaThe Oxford companion to American literature (we also have these for Austrialian, French, Canadian, and more); Michigan in the Novel (really cool book list of novels set in MI or about MI)

Have fun reading, and slow down to think!


1001 Books for Every Mood

We’re getting there....

It hardly seems possible that I wrote about the biographical American Presidents Series in this space four years ago this month, the last time there was a Leap Year Day. It was the month of Presidents’ Day and a presidential election was not far off. The issuance of books in this series has continued since then, and KPL has continued to buy them. The latest publication is on William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins. President for only one month, he does get 153 pages from Ms. Collins. I enjoyed the very positive review that appeared in last Sunday’s Kalamazoo Gazette. With only about five or six of these left to go, John F. Kennedy is up next. I'll write again when the series is completed. It shouldn't take another four years.


William Henry Harrison

From Empire to Dust Bowl

 It was just a coincidence that I read Timothy Egan’s book about the Dust Bowl called The Worst Hard Time  right after finishing Empire of the Summer Moon : Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history by Samuel Gwynne, but I’m glad I did. They are both histories of the same piece of land; mostly the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, with one picking right up where the other left off.

Empire of the Summer Moon details the battles between the southern Plains Indians and the new white settlers, but does not report much on why the new settlers were coming or U.S. public policy that encouraged the movement West. You just see more coming and witness the subduing of the Native Americans, which was aided most by the wholesale killing of the bison that roamed the plains and supported the southern Plains Indian culture for centuries.

In The Worst Hard Time you learn that white settlers were drawn West by false claims made by railroad companies and others hoping to get rich along with the U.S. government giving away land to those willing to relocate. Many of the first settlers see the hopelessness of farming in that area of the country and leave, causing the railroads to lure people from other countries like Russia to settle in the area. A couple of good years of rain, guaranteed prices for wheat during World War I and people were plowing up the buffalo grass of the plains at an alarming rate. When dry years returned and the price of wheat dropped, the land was left unplanted, subject to the strong winds of the Plains. The great storms of the Dust Bowl were a man-made natural disaster.

It was stunning to think that in just 40 short years from when the last group of Comanches agreed to settle on their reservation land, their ancestral lands that they had lived on for centuries were destroyed.


Empire of the Summer Moon


Never Forgotten

Leo and Diane Dillon have been illustrating children’s books together for most of their married life. They are icons in the world of children’s books. Patricia McKissack is also revered in the same world. Together, these talented folks have given us Never Forgotten, the story of Musafa, who was taken captive, sent across the sea, and sold into slavery.

Richly illustrated with oil paintings that look like woodcuts, this is lyrical story reminds readers that family is more important than anything and that our ancestors are with us always.

This book won a well-deserved Coretta Scott King Honor Award this year.


Never Forgotten

Books that Changed America

This book is a nice way to enter into the great American conversation, the great American experiment, hopes and fears, modes of thought, movements, tragedies, and great people. If you don't get a chance to read these books--Of Plymouth Plantation, The Federalist Papers, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Souls of Black Folk, The Promised Land, On the Road, Feminine Mystique--then I especially recommend reading this overview of them. For each book, Parini gives a brief section on the history of the books publication, the author, what the book is about, and it's lasting impression on America. Very readable, and the themes flow together in an amazing way.

We start with a small band of pilgrims landing on the coast of America, a great new experiment! then three "anonymous" Founders arguing for the existence of a federal government; then the amazing accomplishments of Franklin, a real Enlightenment, dabling in everything, pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps man; then Manifest Destiny; then escaping to the woods to reclaim your identity and get rid of your stuff; then the horrors of slavery brought to light; then Twain unleashes his writing genuis; then black folk are not in chains, but still not free; then mass immigration and the promise of American freedom; then the Beat Poet's re-finding meaning in a world of destruction; and finally the "second wave" of women's rights, women who can vote but are chained to the home.

Also check the back of the book for 100 more reading ideas (Common Sense, Democracy in America, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Nature, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Up from Slavery, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man, The Structure of Scientific name a few).


Promised Land

One Picture – Millions of Words

In early November of last year, I heard author David Margolick being interviewed by MSNBC’s Hardball host, Chris Matthews. Margolick, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair as well as to the New York Times Book Review, had written a new book entitled Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. It’s the story of two women and a picture. And as soon as the picture appeared on the television screen, I instantly recognized it, and knew I had to read this book.

The two women referred to in the title are Elizabeth Eckford, who is African American and Hazel Massey, who is white. Their story begins when neither one was an adult woman, but rather two teens caught up in the ugly racial bigotry, fear and hate that school desegregation stirred up to the surface of the American South. The linkage between them was instantaneously forged by a photograph taken in September, 1957. In it, Elizabeth is seen walking stoically in sunglasses in front of Little Rock Central High School, while Hazel is seen standing directly behind her. Hazel’s face is contorted by hate as she yells racial epithets at Elizabeth. This famous image (actually there were more than one photo and more than one photographer) directly captured the true torment that school desegregation produced in Arkansas and throughout much of the South. It became an iconic record of the times of the civil rights movement, and the source of myriad articles, comments and other forms of discourse on race relations, both in the U.S. and abroad.


Margolick weaves together a complex chronicle explaining how the famous and haunting photo of the two young women came to be taken in the first place, its immediate and continued impacts, and why neither Elizabeth nor Hazel has ever managed to escape its powerful heritage. But as much as it is a story of race relations, it is also one of forgiveness in that it follows the often painful paths both women pursue to get on with life, and with each other as their relationship progresses from a simple, initial apology, to forgiveness, reconciliation, and even friendship. Although this last stage, the friendship, did not last, the common bond between them brought about by that fateful photo endures to this day.

A first class read both as a finely crafted history of one culminating event in the fight for school desegregation, as well as a study of the bad, the good and the roads of redemption that humans search for as they attempt to travel from the former to the latter.


Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Worst of Friends

You could look only at the illustrations in this book and understand the friendship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, but, of course, you will want to read the text that explains what transpired between John Adams, the Second President of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson, the Third President of the United States.

Suzanne Tripp Jurmain presents a brief overview of the beginnings of American independence and the important roles of Adams and Jefferson. Noisy John Adams was one of America’s best talkers and shy Thomas Jefferson was one of America’s best writers and together they helped write the Declaration of Independence. Although Adams and Jefferson were complete opposites in appearance, they both “had the same big, wonderful ideas about America. And, whenever they had a chance to work for their country, they did it together.” Interestingly enough, both John and Tom died on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth birthday of American independence.


Worst of Friends


From Michigan City to Mackinaw City

KPL was one of the sites for last month's Art Hop. Among our guests were authors M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson, who have collaborated on several books about Michigan. Their latest is Vintage Views along the West Michigan Pike. By means of narrative and photographs of decades-old postcards, the authors take the reader on a historic trip along the Lake Michigan shoreline. This book is a quality publication -- the research, layout, photographs, and text are excellent. It is a joy to look at and hold this volume as well, since the binding, paper, and printing are all top grade. The previous time these authors were at KPL I bought the book they had just written about the Mackinac Straits region. Since their reputation precedes them, I knew I wanted my own copy of their latest effort also. Besides being gifted authors and compilers, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Byron are very pleasant people. Come take a look at this as well as their earlier books and appreciate anew the fascinating heritage of our great state of Michigan.


Vintage views along the West Michigan Pike : from sand trails to US-31

In Search of Lost Rembrandts and Leonardos

In preparation for a day when I would be spending a lot of time in the car, I took a short visit to the audiobook collection at Central Library.  For me, commutes or road trips become much more enjoyable when I have a good book to listen to.  I gathered up a few titles, including a favorite I have listened to a number of time, The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, and headed to the self check-out.  At the last second, one more title caught my eye titled The Art Detective: fakes, frauds, and finds and the search for lost treasures by Philip Mould.  I quickly snatched up the title knowing it was right up my alley and could likely keep me intently listening for hours.

The author, Philip Mould, is an art dealer from London.  He has gained popularity through his dealings over the years and has been an appraiser on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow.  He spends much of his time researching and examining paintings that are up for auction all over the world judging their worth by considering their subject, attribution, state of preservation, popularity, and provenance.  His book tells stories from during his career when lost paintings have been identified and forgeries uncovered.  Through art historical research in libraries and archives, and scientific innovations, art connoisseurs are able to learn more about how a work of art originally looked and functioned than ever before.  Mould, his colleagues, and his many friends in the art world painstakingly follow leads and try to trace back a painting's history to determine its' origins.

The six chapters each tell different stories of discoveries - identifications of "sleepers" (works by great masters who have somehow been forgotten or misidentified as belonging to a lesser artist), exposing forgeries of great works, and uncovering the greatness of a masterpiece by removing extensive overpainting or darkened varnish.  A great storyteller, Mould is able to keep your attention easily.  The audiobook is very enjoyable, however, I might recommend the book because it includes before and after restoration pictures of the paintings mentioned in the book.  The pictures of the Rembrandt Self-Portrait depict an especially delightful transformation (note: if you like Rembrandt, you don't want to miss the current exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts)!

If you are interested in art history mysteries, you may also enjoy the video titled The Da Vinci Detective about Maurizio Seracini, the director of the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology at the University of California, San Diego.  Seracini has done extensive research on Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi and has been instrumental in leading the search for the possibly lost fresco, The Battle of Anghiari.  Though this search has been halted for a few years, it seems as though research has once again commenced using somewhat more invasive, but also more telling, procedures.  (Hopefully soon, this search for Da Vinci's lost fresco will be forever solved!)  I hope you'll enjoy these stories about the quest for lost art!


The Art Detective: fakes, frauds, and finds and the search for lost treasures

The Detroit Electric Scheme

Detroit in the early 1900s is the setting for a fast paced historical mystery, The Detroit Electric Scheme, written by Kalamazoo area author D.E. Johnson. The book was named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the year, and won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award.

Will Anderson is the son of the owner of Detroit Electric, the era’s leading manufacturer of electric cars. One night Will gets a call from a former college roommate, John Cooper, asking Will to meet him at the car factory. Will agrees, but when he arrives at the darkened factory, he finds Cooper dead, crushed by a huge press. Since Cooper was engaged to Elizabeth, Will’s former fiancé, Will becomes the police’s prime suspect in the murder, and they pursue him ruthlessly.

Will’s cat and mouse game with the police involves him in encounters with organized crime, and dealing with hooligans such as the Dodge brothers. Will also has friends in the upper echelons of society- Edsel Ford, for example.

I found the history of Detroit especially fascinating in this book—the beginnings of the automobile industry and the “players” come to life. It also gives a view of the everyday lives of Detroiters around 1910, the well off and immigrants alike.

You can come and hear author D.E. Johnson in person on Tuesday, February 7, 6:30 pm at the Washington Square Branch Library, 1244 Portage St. Books will be available for sale and signing.

Please join us!


The Detroit Electric Scheme

World Without Fish

For a fast-moving look at the crisis of the oceans, check out Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish, a 2011 release geared to readers aged nine and up. Kurlansky, a former commercial fisherman, explains how overfishing, pollution, and global warming are a triple threat to ocean eco-systems. He argues that these threats must be resolved by the generation of people that are not yet adults. I appreciated the nuanced explanation of the problems and the potential solutions that are available to us. Punctuated by a multi-part comic strip narrative and other illustrations by Frank Stockton, World Without Fish is fascinating for its design alone. Mark Kurlansky is the author of the bestselling Cod, among other books.