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Staff Picks: Books


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

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

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

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


The 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.

Don't Miss Out!

 In case you didn’t know, right now in theatres there is a brilliant movie called the Queen of Katwe. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, and David Oyelowo, it follows the journey of a young girl named Phiona living in the slums of Uganda who learns the game of chess and quickly skyrockets through the ranks to be a national champion, even competing in international competitions for the rank of Grandmaster. In the process, she is able to improve life conditions for herself, her family, and uplift the community as a whole. 


Right after the credits rolled, I headed straight to the bookshelves to find out more about this incredible individual. The biographythe movie is based on, by Tim Crothers, fleshes out the inspirational tale a bit more to  include the political climate of the country at the time, and gives more details about some of the great challenges Phiona Mutesi was able to overcome.  Don’t miss out on this great story of true life triumph! 

Atlas of Cursed Places

When people see the term 'atlas' in the title of this book, they will probably think it's such a large tome that they will have to try to park close by when they come to pick it up. This is not the case with Atlas of Cursed Places : A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations, since it has only 142 pages. Speaking for myself, I'll be honest and say I'm not going to use this scary volume as a 'travel guide,' but I enjoyed looking at it nonetheless. The back cover of the book describes some of the locations to visit, which include the dangerous Strait of Messina, location of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, India, where the ground constantly burns with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 5 million migrating bats darken the skies; and Aokigahara, a forest near Mt. Fuji in Japan, the world's second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge. And, what would a book of this nature be without a chapter on the Bermuda Triangle? A bonus is that each entry is accompanied by a vintage map.

Known and Strange Things

My favorite writers are those whose writings tend to defy rigid categories. I’m interested in voices whose passionate minds are rich with curiosity and whose texts feel less like someone rooted to certainties and more like an interrogation of social reality as a shifting terrain of beliefs butting up against power dynamics, history and politics. Over the past few years I’ve been drawn to books of essays and memoirs whose authors are fascinated by a wide range of subjects and themes. Teju Cole is my kind of writer and the kind thinker that our times require in order to make sense (or at the very least question) of complex issues. And in this book of 50 essays, he pulls it off with a beautiful prose that is inviting and accessible. His newest book Known and Strange Things: Essays is a wildly perceptive book that packs a punch even though it resists feeling ‘ideological’ or like someone shouting truths at you. From his interest in photography to James Baldwin’s experiences in Switzerland, to his love of literature to his various travels around the world, Cole’s erudite voice is that of someone whose sparkling mind finds immense joy in the world’s fertile landscape of ideas and culture.

Unveiling The Cloud Forest Dwelling Olinguito

Olinguito, from A to Z! by Lulu Delacre is an award winning alphabet book written in both Spanish and English. It takes the reader on a journey accompanying an intrepid zoologist searching out the elusive olinguito. An olinguito is a mammal recently discovered to be a separate species. Related to the raccoon, olinguitos live exclusively in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

This beautifully illustrated volume features the many plants and animals who call the cloud forest their home. It also includes the author's notes about the real discovery of the olinguito, as well as additional information about the cloud forest, how the illustrations came to be, on being an explorer, and a glossary of the various cloud forest plants and animals(with their Spanish pronunciations).As an added bonus, there is a built-in puzzle/game that will have younger readers going back to play more than once.

Very creative and truly Magnifico!

Lea Leads the Way

In this book, Lea Leads the Way, Lea is still in Brazil with her family. The plan for the next portion of the trip was for the whole family to visit the rainforest where Zac is living and going to school. However since her Dad’s hiking accident, he is unable to continue traveling. The family decides that Lea and Zac will continue on without Mom and Dad.

Lea is set for an animal adventure. She has never been to the rainforest before and she is excited to be traveling with Zac and visiting his host family who live in the middle of the rainforest. She loves taking photographs with the camera her Grandmother gave her. She is especially hopeful of capturing the wildlife in the rainforest in photos. While Lea is on her trip, she is writing a blog and posting pictures so that her classmates from school can follow her trip. During a hike with Zac, they discover a baby sloth that is badly injured. Lea decides to do all she can to help the little sloth survive. Zac knows about a wildlife sanctuary and they take the baby sloth there for care. As Lea learns more about the rainforest and what is happening to the area, including poaching of the wildlife, she wonders if she did the right thing.

This is another interesting American Girl series. Readers will enjoy the locale and facts about Brazil and the culture.

No baggage

Can you picture yourself hopping on a flight to another country for a 3 week trip with literally just the shirt on your back? In No baggage : a minimalist tale of love & wandering, poet Clara Bensen chronicles how she did just that…only a few months out of a 2 year anxiety/depression-ridden slump…with a guy she had met just a month before on the match site OKCupid. With no luggage (not even a backpack), the pair travels from Istanbul to London, through 8 countries. I am only about 100 pages in, but I can’t put this book down! Everything in this book is fascinating – the minimalism, the newness of their relationship which has only been defined so far as “travel partners,” and the poetic descriptions of the places they’ve been already, such as the “cobbled streets” of Istanbul “stitched together in spiderlike grids.” I love travelogues, but this is by far the most intriguing one I’ve read so far.

Obsessions Good and Bad

Kara Richardson Whitely’s memoir, titled Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro At 300 Pounds, is a brutally honest narrative of the author’s self-imposed ordeal to trek up the famous peak while weighing a hefty 300-plus pounds.

She had already reached the summit several years earlier to celebrate her 120 pound weight loss. This account is of her third attempt up the mountain, after failing to reach the summit a second time. Kara decides to undertake this challenge in order to recapture the positive feelings she had when her weight was under control.

She sets out on the climb in the company of four women friends. For added incentive they raise money for Global Alliance for Africa’s AIDS orphans programs. Kara and two of her friends make it to the summit. One has to turn back due to physical issues.

The author openly admits that she has always relied on food to get her through adversity. Hence, this Kilimanjaro obsession was the result of her being both “... a glutton plain and simple, as well as a glutton for punishment”.

During the trek, bad experiences from her past weigh heavily upon her soul, but she comes to the realization that she currently finds herself in a good place. With a devoted husband and a four year old daughter in her life, any future journeys that she might undertake will be easier without the emotional baggage she had previously carried. She is ready to face whatever comes next with joy and a sense of adventure.

I found this to be a good but not great read. The author’s fixation with descriptions of food and her overeating ultimately subtracted too much from my pleasure in reading this book.

November 12: We should be in Hong Kong

This 2014 book is subtitled 365 Things to Do and the Perfect Day to Do Them. From our friends at Lonely Planet comes this travel guide to some familiar but mostly unknown places. Beginning with January 1 and ending with December 31, there is an entry for the location to be visited and why it's a good day to be there. I checked my birthday, which was November 1, and found that it was a good day to visit Oaxaca, Mexico because of the Day of the Dead Festival. I didn't make it down there, but I had the opportunity to read about why I should have gone. Many of these attractions would be impractical for the average tourist to attend, but reading about rafting the Tara River in Montenegro on May 19, getting close to polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba on October 26, or joining the Turnip Festival at Lake Zurich in Switzerland on November 14 could be of interest to those who like to study exotic destinations.