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Staff Picks: Books

Feline Piano Composer and Player

Based on a true story, Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed by Leslea Newman with illustrations by Amy June Bates is a real winner for both music lovers and cat enthusiasts.

The book introduces us to Moshe Cotel, a composer for the piano who lives in a very busy and loud city. But far from it being a distraction, Moshe uses the urban noise as the starting off point for his numerous compositions.

One day, while on his usual afternoon walk around the neighborhood, he hears the forlorn "mew" of a tiny, lost kitten. He picks up the black and white tyke, names her Ketzel, and brings her back to his apartment.

Shortly thereafter, a letter arrives in the mailbox from the Paris New Music Review announcing a piano competition contest with one stipulation: No piece may be longer than sixty seconds!

Moshe exclaims that creating a musical work of such brevity is impossible, so he places the letter aside, not giving it another thought. On the other hand, the next day he decides to give it a try. From the outset, he is completely stymied by the task. Whatever he starts, he cannot finish. He takes his failures so hard that he temporarily stops playing the piano.

One day Ketzel creeps across the piano keys with all four paws much to Moshe's auditory delight. He proclaims Ketzel to be a musical genius who has composed the unbelievable: A piece for piano with a distinct beginning, middle and end that lasts only twenty-one seconds! So he names the solo composition "Piece for Piano: Four Paws", and sends it off to the contest judges.

A few weeks later, he receives a letter saying that although he didn't win a prize, the submitted work does merit a certificate of special mention, which comes with an invitation to attend a concert where the piece will be played.

Moshe sneaks Ketzel into the concert hall in his vest pocket and every time the young pianist chosen to perform the work mentions Ketzel by name, the kitten responds with a loud, emphatic MEOW!

Animals are forbidden from entering the concert hall but after Moshe reveals that Ketzel is the actual composer of the piece, both are allowed to remain. Several encores later, "Piece for Piano:Four Paws" turns into musical history.

Ketzel becomes quite famous and receives a royalty check in the amount of nineteen dollars and seventy-two cents which purchases many cans of yummy cat food.

An engaging tale, wonderfully reminiscent of Nora, the piano playing cat of YouTube fame!

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Rocky, a wonderful cat companion of one of my colleagues, Keith.

 

 


The life of a Pullman Porter

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

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


Holocaust Remembrance Day

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

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

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

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

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


Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer

In all of its 103-year history, only one American has won The Tour De France, consistently regarded, as one of the most difficult sporting events in the world. Yet that person, Mr. Greg LeMond, is likely not the name that most, non-cycling, American’s first think of when asked to name America’s greatest cyclist. I state this, not only to recognize the lack of attention to LeMond’s great accomplishments, but also to illustrate that occasionally sweet justice is served and famous, narcissistic bullies get their karmic comeuppance. For me, Greg LeMond was the reason I started cycling in the first place. His legend still burns bright in my eyes – he won the Tour De France 3 times, and 2 of those victories came after being shot full of lead in a horrible life-threatening hunting accident! So, to see his cycling career respected enough to produce the wonderful coffee-table sized Greg LeMond: Yellow Jersey Racer, with great stories from his fellow 80’s cycling personalities, wonderful photography from throughout his entire career, and not a single mention of a certain disgraced Texan, it feels like something has been put right with the world.


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

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

 


Do you say soda or pop?

Speaking American got us all talking at Washington Square. How do you say “crayon” or “coupon” or “grocery store”? Do you say pop or soda, scratch paper or scrap paper, takeout or carry-out, drinking fountain or water fountain or bubbler? It probably depends on where you are from in the U.S.


We have had so much fun looking at the maps of where words are used and reading the short entries on the idiosyncracies of certain states or even cities. My wife, from Kansas, hates that I say, “You want to come with?” You can’t end a sentence with a preposition, right? Well, the majority of people in Minnesota and Chicago do. Bingo, I’m from Chicago. My colleagues tested me by asking what I called shoes that you wear for sports. Gym shoes, of course. Well, only in Chicago or Cincinnati. Everyone else says either “tennis shoes” or “sneakers.” 

 
I was also happy to see crayfish-crawfish-crawdad in there. Throughout our marriage, we have jokingly tried to convince our kids that those crustaceans are called crayfish (Chicago) or crawdad (Kansas). When I showed it to my wife it started the debate again and she said, “They aren’t fish.” Then I said, “Well, they aren’t dads either.” After a second more to think, I said, “Well, at least half of them aren’t.”


Also, now I know why my brother who moved to Connecticut started saying tag sale rather than garage sale. 

 
You will love looking through this book, especially if you do it with someone else.


Ten Prayers That Changed the World

Subtitled Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History, this is a 2016 book published by the National Geographic Society. In it are stories about ten prayers selected by author Jean-Pierre Isbouts, historian and doctoral professor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. The book is naturally divided into ten chapters which are: Abraham's Plea, Jesus' Prayer to Abba, The Dream of Constantine, The Voices of Joan of Arc, Martin Luther's Hymn, George Washington's Prayer, The Prayer of St. Francis, The Prayer for Bastogne, Gandhi's Prayer for Peace, and Mother Teresa's Daily Prayer. As can be seen, these chapters cover a wide variety of religious persuasions, thought, and practice. Thus this volume can be used as an aid in personal devotion or as a historical study.


The Last Battle

During the last few hours of the last day of World War II, in a remote medieval castle in an otherwise sleepy part of the Austrian countryside, US and German troops joined forces during one of the strangest and least-likely battles of the entire war. The Last Battle is an account of the hours leading up to that battle, when a small unit of defecting German conscripts and a handful of battle-weary US soldiers fought off two hundred Waffen-SS loyalists trying to take control of the Schloss Itter castle and capture the six French VIPs held captive inside. Desperately low on ammunition, and with only a single battle-damaged tank parked on the castle entrance, the US and German troops- along with the support of dozens of concentration camp survivors, Austrian resistance fighters, and the bickering French VIPs themselves- managed to hold off the invading SS troops long enough for reinforcements to arrive. That this book hasn't somehow been turned into a huge-budgeted Hollywood film is almost as astonishing as the story itself.


The Edge of the Empire

By CE 130, the city of Rome was the center of an enormous empire, roughly rectangular in shape, that stretched from the province of Aegyptus (Egypt) at its southeastern corner to Britannia in the northwest. Bronwen Riley chooses CE 130 as the year in which she imagines and constructs a journey “from the heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall” in this wonderfully accessible 2016 offering. In doing so, she draws upon a wide variety of sources ranging from modern scholarship to the immutable contributions of Cassius Dio, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger.

While Egypt was immensely important to Rome, with the Nile River delta serving as the empire’s breadbasket, Britannia was… less so. Considered by cosmopolitan Romans to be the very embodiment of the term ‘provincial’, Britannia had functioned as an Imperial Province since CE 43 when the Emperor Claudius ordered finished the work begun by Julius Caesar almost a century prior. In the 90 years between CE 43 and 130, the Romans successfully secured their claim on Britannia, from the southern coast to the site of the modern village of Bowness-on-Solway, through the liberal application of butchery, diplomacy, and industry.

Unlike the tamer Senatorial Provinces closer to Rome such as Sicilia, Epirus, or even Macedonia, operations in Britannia were overseen by the Roman military. Riley selects for her travel companions the sorts of Romans who might be appointed to such a post. With her are Sextus Julius Severus, a battle-hardened Roman general who took up his governorship there in CE 130 and Minicius Natalis the Younger, the Patrician champion four-horse charioteer of the 227th Olympic Games, who assumed command of the Roman Sixth Legion at Eboracum (York) that same year.

Riley describes in exceptional detail the ins and outs of travelling as a Roman citizen during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, who we’ll recall from our Western Civ. courses as the third of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. How would one arrange for travel from the ports of Ostia to those in Gallia Narbonensis on the far side of the Alps? What should one know of the intricacies of Gallic hospitality on the way to Gesoriacum (Bulogne)? Here’s a travel tip: avoid the ‘pork’ offered by dodgy innkeepers if you harbor any qualms regarding potential acts of cannibalism.

Along the way, Riley draws attention to the myriad foundations of modern western civilization laid by Roman engineers. Upon arrival in the cities of Britannia, Riley focuses on the ways in which those engineers set to work emulating Roman life on the fringes of the empire. After all, city planning and the provision of civic institutions such as temples, amphitheaters, public baths, and above all, roads, were as important to Romans on the edge of their world as it was to those at its center.

It’s an engaging, immersive work that ultimately has far more in common with a historical monograph than a travel guide or a gazetteer, and in my opinion, comes off as less heavy and more approachable. Anglophiles and Romanophiles in particular will not be disappointed.


Utopia Is Creepy

Anyone familiar with his previous books, most notably The Shallows or The Glass Cage, knows Nicholas Carr as one of our greatest critical thinkers when it comes to technologies impact on society. Carr’s latest title, Utopia Is Creepy and other provocations, collects a decade’s worth of posts from his blog, along with several essays that focus squarely on undermining Silicon Valley’s Pollyannaish insistence that technology and the web can solve any problem facing society and will make EVERYTHING better. But Carr is far from a technophobic luddite, he clearly deeply understands the technology he skewers, but he also understands technologies limits. No matter where you land on the techy to technophobic scale, Carr’s stinging wit and casual style are well worth checking out.