Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

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
Elysha Cloyd


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
David D.

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
David D.

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
David D.

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
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