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Staff Picks: Books

UTR MI: the First 50

We were researching where to vacation in Michigan and came upon this TV clip about Beaver Island. I was intrigued to learn more about lesser-known places in Michigan, so I sought out Under the Radar Michigan’s website. The TV show takes viewers all around MI to places both quirky and not quirky, but just worthy of getting to know. The series will be coming to KPL’s DVD collection this summer. In the meanwhile, check out the companion book to the show.

Each chapter corresponds to the episode of the same number. Sometimes they go to opposite sides of the state in one episode. Other times they zero in on a region-- as with chapter 45, the “West-Side Mitten Adventure”-- or a theme such as the “Michigan Festivals Special” (ch. 26.) The indexes enable you to find specific sites, cities, and regions covered in the book. Kalamazoo is featured more than once, and the Kalamazoo places listed in the book are brag-worthy. I learned about some businesses I had not known, as well as more about places already familiar to me in our community.

Check it out and start planning your next trip!


Tent Camping in Michigan

It’s the time of year when our camping gear comes out of storage and we start to think about where we will explore Michigan this summer. For years, one of my favorite resources has been the Best Tent Camping Michigan guide. 

I always research any travel destination online and in print books. KPL has so many helpful resources for planning your next adventure in Michigan, or anywhere else.


American Street

American Street follows the story of a Haitian teenage girl named Fabiola who planned on coming to stay with her aunt and cousins in Detroit, Michigan. Though Fabiola was born in the US, and is an American citizen, her mother is not, and she ends up getting detained at the JFK airport.  As a result, Fabiola is forced to start a brand new life on her own-- creating a new identity in an unfamiliar country, with family she doesn't know, all the while trying to find a way to be reunited with her mother.

It's always interesting to see your home through someone else's eyes, and this debut novel by Ibi Zoboi, a Haitian immigrant herself, provides a fresh and unique perspective on the American Dream, and the compromises one has to make along the way.  


An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Some time ago I wrote in this space about the Atlas of Cursed Places : A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations. One of my colleagues remembered that when she saw the book Atlas Obscura and mentioned to me that I might like it as well. She was right. I did. This book is wide-ranging in that it covers both natural and human-made attractions throughout the world, even in remote locations of Oceania and Antarctica. I checked to see what there was in Michigan and found three entries: 1) Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, 2) Hoegh Pet Caskets in Gladstone, and 3) a test tube called Edison's Last Breath in Dearborn. I might add that this book is not for the faint of heart (or stomach), since some of the material is rather macabre, such as the photo of bodies in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo on the island of Sicily. Shall I go on? Listings for The Netherlands include the Teylers Museum which has been lit only by sunlight since it opened in 1784, and Micropia, which is a zoo that includes only organisms that are invisible to the naked eye, such as bacteria, yeasts, and molds. And there are more by the Dutch: The Hash, Marihuana, Hemp Museum; The Torture Museum; and the Cigar Band House. Or, one could go to Minneapolis and visit Orfield Laboratories, which has an anechoic chamber that's called the 'World's Quietest Room.' What a world we live in. What a book!


Passing

 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!