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Staff Picks: Books

It's All a Game

Subtitled The History of Board Games from Monopoly to Settlers of Catan, this 2017 book is a 'colorful and entertaining history of board games that provides a fascinating look into what board games can teach us about ourselves.'  Included are histories and analyses of board games such as chess, backgammon, The Game of Life, Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, the plastic games (Mouse Trap and Operation), and Trivial Pursuit. The subheading of the chapter on Monopoly says, 'How Monopoly went from anti-landlord tirade to celebration of cutthroat capitalism.' The chapter on Clue tells how 'Clue's very British murders created a world of armchair sleuths.' In discussing modern board games, author Tristan Donovan also writes about 'how Germany revitalized board gaming for the twenty-first century.' This is another book that doesn't necessarily need to be read straight through to be enjoyed. I love the dedicatory note in the front: 'To my sister Jade, the queen of overturned Monopoly boards.'


Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free

 Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW is Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson’s account of becoming a Tuskegee Airman, and getting shot down over Germany during his 19th mission on August 12th, 1944. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp, and was held captive until April 29th, 1945. Jefferson writes about growing up in segregated Detroit and tells how his fascination with aviation influenced his education. He talks about training to become a Tuskegee Airman and his missions overseas. He discusses his experience as a prisoner of war, and also details his life and career after the war.

  

 The most interesting part for me was reading about how many barriers stood in the way of black men to join the Army Air Corps, because no one wanted black men to have the chance to prove they were as intelligent and capable of flying as white pilots. Women faced similar obstacles, as I read about in WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II by Vera S. Williams. Jefferson writes:

  

 “On September 23, 1942, I was sworn into the Army Reserves. I immediately volunteered for flight training but was told to return home and wait for a position to open up. When I asked when this would be, I was told not to worry about it. I wasn’t sure I would ever be called, but at least being in the reserves kept me from being drafted. At the time, I didn’t understand what was going on, but I later learned there was a rigid quota restricting how many blacks could be inducted each month into the training program at Tuskegee,” (24).

  

 Even if someone made it into the program, it was unlikely that he would graduate. The government made sure that only a small percentage of cadets graduated.

  

 “We cadets were all college graduates…there were 90 of us who started…by the end of our nine months of training, only 25 of us had survived. Some were eliminated for flying inadequacies, and some for non-military reasons. Years later, through the Freedom of Information Act, we discovered there had been a quota for how many blacks were allowed to graduate. The phrase used to wash guys out was “eliminated while passing for the convenience of the government,” (26).

 

 Like many black veterans, and talented individuals of color in many industries, Jefferson was not officially recognized for his achievement and sacrifice by the government until much later on in life. He received the Purple Heart in 2001 and collected other prestigious awards too. Of course, his induction into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame at the Kalamazoo Aviation Museum (now known as the Air Zoo) in 1995 stood out for me among his honors.

 

 

 


What Is Hip-Hop?

I absolutely LOVE THIS BOOK!  Beautifully written in rhyme, it provides younger children with a great introduction to the history of Hip Hop music.  Anny Yi's amazing 3-D clay art form kept me laughing all the way through.  From DJ Cool Herc to LL Cool J, Flava Flav to De La Soul, Salt-N-Pepa to Eminem… I really enjoyed this trip down memory lane and seeing all the Hip Hop artists represented.  Anyone who grew up on Hip Hop will want to read this picture book.  Listen here to author Eric Morse as he talks about his exposure to Hip Hop music and writing this wonderful book.  

 


The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, Literary Treasures

I find it hard to believe that it has been 26 years since the Kalamazoo Public Library gave up its card catalog in favor of an online catalog. This means that a fairly large segment of the population has no memory of this iconic entity. As do a few others on the staff here at the library, I remember well the days of walking to the card catalog from the desk to determine whether we owned a certain book or not. While I would never want to return to this method of library service, I did enjoy looking at this 2017 book produced by the Library of Congress. In it are five chapters: 1) Origins of the Card Catalog, 2) The Enlightened Catalog, 3) Constructing a Catalog, 4) The Nation's Library and Catalog, and 5) The Rise and Fall of the Card Catalog. There are lots of illustrations, not only of the furniture, but also individual cards as well as photographs of original book jackets to go along with the cards depicted. I loved seeing covers of books such as those for To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cat in the Hat, Charlotte's Web, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and many others. This book evokes nostalgia for the past as well as gratitude for the present.


Chatham, Chicago, Segregation, and Gentrification

The content, issues, and stories in this book make it a must read. Unfortunately for me, I just couldn't get into the writing style, the flow, and the speed of the book. Hopefully you have a different experience.

Among the many things brought to light in this book, the Black middle class neighborhood of Chatham looms large. The author, a correspondent for NPR, grew up there. It's important to remember that, while the effects of segregation have been catastrophic for Black families as a whole, there are many different ways of "growing up Black" in America. Chatham is different from Harlem which is different from Baltimore.

If you read this book, then you must read The Color of Law, a more general book about the same issues.


Stephanie

Susan Faludi, a feminist writer probably most famous for writing Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women, has a new book exploring her family’s history titled In the Darkroom. It begins when she is contacted by her father from whom she has been long estranged and he informs her that he is now Stephanie, having gone through sex reassignment surgery. As they renew their relationship, Faludi takes you on a fascinating journey into her father’s identity and the idea of identity itself. 

 
She explores her father’s history as a photographer, adept at manufacturing and manipulating images and weaves this into the many changes her father has gone through in life. Then she layers on top of that the history of Hungary, her father’s homeland and current place of residence, which she reveals to be a most willing accomplice in the extermination of Jews during World War II. This was the back drop for her Jewish father’s early years in Hungary before emigrating to the United States. 

 
It seems like a mystery novel with Faludi as the detective, turning up clues and illuminating her father’s story.


Take a picture of me, James VanDerZee!

Years ago when I worked in archives, I would spend hours and hours looking through photos taken during the Harlem Renaissance era.  Most of those photos were taken by James VanDerZee, a brilliant African American photographer who had the ability to capture the true essence of his subjects.

VanDerZee was born in Lennox, Massachusetts in 1886.  As a young boy, he fell in love with "a huge contraption called a camera" and immediately taught himself how to take photos and develop the film in his own closet darkroom.  At 18, he moved to New York City when the Harlem Renaissance was beginning. After working several jobs, VanDerZee opened his own photography studio and began his journey photographing everyone and everything.  His photos were so well-produced, his services were in high demand for the next 60 plus years.

Andrea J. Loney introduces young readers to this amazing man in this well-written and illustrated biography picture book.  I recommend it for family reading.

 


A Flag Worth Dying For

Some time ago I wrote in this space about the book Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything about the World. Now comes author Tim Marshall with another book. This one is called A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols. In nine chapters Marshall gives histories of many of the world’s flags as well as anecdotes that make these histories interesting. I especially appreciated the color flag illustrations, particularly those of the many new countries that have evolved in the last quarter century. More than detailed accounts, these chapters analyze the symbolism and emotional impact the sight of a flag has on those who view it. According to Geographical magazine, ‘This might be the comprehensive flag volume we’ve all been waiting for – a slick yet detailed and well-researched journey through some of the world’s most infamous and interesting flags. Marshall guides us through this myriad of stories admirably.’

 


Yellowstone

I think it’s pretty safe to say that I won’t be making the trip to Yellowstone National Park anytime soon. But, I can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (albeit a few months late) with the help of this book. Subtitled A Journey through America’s Wild Heart, one finds herein a short history of the park; however, author David Quammen’s purpose in writing this book is to describe the park as it exists today. One would expect to find great photography in a publication from the National Geographic Society, and this work is no exception. The unconventional size (7” tall x 10” wide) adds to the uniqueness of this volume. For a good survey of life in today’s Yellowstone, take a look at this.


All the Wild that Remains

On my vacation trip to Utah this year, I brought along All the Wild that Remains by David Gessner. Gessner is a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and is well known for his nature writing. Although he is a New Englander, he fell in love with the West and two revered and influential writers: Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, during some time he spent there in his 20s.


In All the Wild that Remains, Gessner travels around the West to important places in Stegner’s and Abbey’s lives; sometimes interviewing old friends of theirs, and commenting on these writers’ legacies and what they taught us about living in the West.

 
Stegner, my favorite author, spent some of his formative years in Salt Lake City and chose to have his papers archived at the University of Utah rather than Stanford where he founded and led an outstanding writing program that boasts a long line of famous attendees such as: Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, and our other featured author, Edward Abbey. Stegner fought to preserve the wild places of the West in many ways and is best remembered in environmental circles for what is called the Wilderness Letter, which was influential in creating the National Wilderness Preservation System.


Abbey lived a wilder life and his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, was the inspiration for the creation of the environmental organization Earth First!. Many agree that his masterpiece though is the autobiographical Desert Solitaire that Abbey wrote about his time as a park ranger in Arches National Park. Unable to attend Abbey’s funeral celebration in southern Utah, Stegner sent these words for Wendell Berry to read, "He had the zeal of a true believer and a stinger like a scorpion . . . He was a red-hot moment in the life of the country, and I suspect that the half-life of his intransigence will be like that of uranium."


If you haven’t heard of either of these authors, it wouldn’t be that surprising. They were characterized as Western authors and therefore, somewhat ignored by the East Coast literati, much to Stegner’s chagrin. Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose wasn’t even reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. 


But now you know about them, so add them to your reading lists.