The New York Times Book Review started a feature called “By the Book” a year or two ago. Someone, usually an author, is interviewed about their reading habits. Several of the questions are repeated almost every week like; What is currently on your nightstand?, What book are you embarrassed that you have not read yet?, or What book was a great disappointment to you?
Another one of the recurring questions is: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?” I’ve noticed that Mark Twain and Charles Dickens get invited a lot.
In Stanley Plumly’s, The Immortal Evening, we learn about an actual dinner party involving three literary giants: William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb. The dinner took place on December 28, 1817 at Benjamin Robert Haydon’s house who was working on a painting called Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Interestingly, in the crowd around Jesus in the painting, Haydon included the likenesses of Wordsworth, Keats, and Lamb.
If you enjoy poetry and art history, this might be the one for you.
By the way, my answer to the New York Times Book Review question would be: Wallace Stegner, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. Who would you invite?
How would you react in the face of a disaster that left thousands homeless and wiped out essential city services in Kalamazoo for weeks on end? Rebecca Solnit takes a look at some major disasters over the past century or so and reports on some of the grassroots communities that emerged to provide relief in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell.
Focusing on the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a horrific explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina she reports that government officials and wealthy power brokers have often turned resources towards protecting property and policing the disaster area because of fears that the public’s reaction will be to turn savage and live out some Mad Max survival of the fittest scenario.
Although there are some people who take advantage of the situation, she finds that there are more people who come together to form impromptu communities to provide relief and comfort for those in need. I enjoyed reading about these temporary utopias that emerge from these disasters and bring out our “better angels.”
Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic By Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Victor Juhasz.
When is it not hot dog season – they really aren’t just for summer picnics anymore, but that was a different case in 1939.
In June of 1939, the United States had 2 very special guests visit - King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. It was the first visit of reigning British Royalty. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to take the opportunity to extend a warm welcome. She had the idea to celebrate the visit with an all American picnic complete with hot dogs. Mrs. Roosevelt loved hot dogs. She loved to eat them and to cook them on the grill. She was famous in her family for her hot dog roasts.
Usually entertaining in the White House meant fancy dinners – hot dogs were never served. Eleanor discovered that Queen Elizabeth was a distant cousin of George Washington. With this news, she decided an all American picnic was in order and really – what is a picnic without roasted hot dogs! Mrs. Roosevelt planned the picnic to take place at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, New York. President Roosevelt was just happy she wasn’t serving spinach. But not everyone agreed with Mrs. Roosevelt’s menu – lots of people didn’t think hot dogs were appropriate- however she stuck up for herself.
On June 11, 1939 the Roosevelt’s hosted the picnic. The hot dogs were served on fancy silver trays. The King ate seconds. The picnic was a success. On June 11, 1989, the 50th anniversary picnic was held. The Queen sent a special message. And what do you think was on the picnic menu…
HOT DIGGITY DOGS!
What a fun book to share with just enough history mixed with the humor of serving hot dogs. Don’t wait until summer to read it.
Natchez Burning is not my usual kind of book, but once I started reading, I couldn’t put down.
The story is centered in Natchez, Mississippi, and shifts between the 1960’s and the present. The respected town doctor is accused of murdering his former nurse, an African-American woman who returned to Natchez after many years of living up north.
As one reviewer has written, there are racial politics, family secrets, corruption, racism, almost unbelievable brutality, and fear, much centering on a fringe KKK sect.
In spite of its length, it is a real page-turner. I have seen it listed on several “best of the year” lists. Although it won’t make my best-of list, it is good read, a book in which a reader can get totally lost.
Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck, follows the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa, for thirty years. Each year is a chapter: 1920 – 1953. The family endures the depression, trading the horses for a tractor, a son in World War II, the cold war, births and deaths.
Much of the focus is on first born, Frank, who was “born with an eye for opportunity,” but all family members are developed. Luck is never to be relied on, but it plays a role.
Smiley plans a trilogy that will follow the Langdon family well into the 21st century. Their story is off to a strong start.
This is likely to be one of my favorite books of the year, although there are still two months of good reading left.
Growing up in Grand Rapids in the 80s and 90s, my family's "fancy" restaurant to go to was the Brann's restaurant on S. Division Ave. I would get the economizer prime rib special and a Shirley Temple to drink. Now living in the Kalamazoo area, my husband and I take our kids to the Brann's near Crossroads Mall/Celebration Cinema. With 11 locations across Michigan, Brann's is a thriving local chain. Mind your own business by Tommy Brann tells the history of Brann's restaurant, the Brann family, and shares highs and lows of running a successful restaurant/small business. Until this book came across my desk recently, I didn't know that our go-to restaurant had been opened by a 19 year old kid, just out of school at East Grand Rapids High. Available for other Fanns of Brann's to browse in our local history collection.
I stumbled upon the book Priceless:
How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. The founder of the FBI
Art Crime Team, author Robert Wittman recalls a number of cases when he
recovers stolen artifacts or artwork, working undercover convincing mobsters
and corrupt collectors that he’ll pay big money for their stolen works. It can take months, even years, of building
rapport with the sellers or middlemen before setting up a sting which involves
large amounts of cash, priceless works of art, and, very likely, guns or other
Wittman struggles with the widely accepted opinion at the bureau
that art crime is less important than other types of investigations. What is even more perplexing to those
investigators that take this stance is that arresting those guilty of the theft
or selling the stolen property is much less important than recovering the
stolen works. Regardless of this, each
time something is recovered, communities celebrate the return of their lost
treasures, whether they have been gone a few months or more than a hundred
The book starts and ends with talking about the Gardener Heist. The
most valuable collection of stolen artwork in the world, the paintings were cut
out of their frames in March 1990 and are estimated to be worth more than $580
million. One painting, Vermeer’s “The Concert”, is
estimated to be worth $200 million on its own!
We learn from the book that the heist is so well known and the paintings
so recognizable, they could only ever be sold on the black market.
I really enjoyed reading Priceless. Most chapters are their own little short stories. This means the book works well for those with similar scheduled to mine that may not give them an opportunity to sit down with a book for long periods of time. I greatly appreciate that Wittman rescues different types of art and artifacts all with the same dedication to returning them to their rightful owners. Hope you enjoy this book as much as I did if it makes it onto your reading list!
Library of Congress American Folklife Center: an Illustrated Guide…the title sounds bland, but the book/CD set is anything but! It covers a wide cross-section of folk art and folk lore in the United States.
Most amazing is the accompanying CD. With 35 tracks in all, there are songs from all over the U.S., including a song sung by Zora Neale Hurston, storytelling, personal interviews with many different people about aspects of daily living and the impacts of war and slavery. Some recordings are over 100 years old. Altogether they demonstrate the richness and variety of cultural experience in our country. This would be a great teaching tool to help bring an American history topic to life for your students.
Library of Congress American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide
When you hear the phrase "welfare queen," what do you think of? Although technically speaking the phrase itself - welfare queen - isn't racist, I think we all know it actually is. Indeed, it was meant to be, by the politician who carefully created the myth. This book is about the history of such language. Specifically, it's about how politicians use this language to gain votes by creating fear, by focusing demographically, by dividing smaller groups from bigger ones. As for the three main targets, we are talking about African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.
Although the author mostly blames Republicans and Fox News for racial politics, he does blame the Democratic Party too (he is not too kind to Clinton, for example, and he criticises Obama's strategy when it comes to race). Turns out the insatiable thirst for votes is bipartisan. But the major theme throughout the book is how the Republican Party specifically and intentionally became the white man's party in the late 1960's, beginning with the so called "Southern Strategy," which was summarized rather brutally by Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist:
"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."
This is a complex book on racism and politics in America.
dog whistle politics
In this book we received last fall, Smithsonian Institution Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture Richard Kurin provides a wealth of information regarding 101 objects held by that museum. At 762 pages, this publication was no small effort, I am sure. Organized by historical era, the author provides photographs and commentary on such items as the Appomattox Court House furnishings, Abraham Lincoln's hat, a bugle from the U.S.S. Maine, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, Thomas Edison's light bulb, a Ford Model T, Helen Keller's watch, Louis Armstrong's trumpet, a World War I gas mask, Dorothy's ruby slippers, a Berlin Wall fragment, Neil Armstrong's space suit, an RCA television set, and a door from one of the fire trucks that was at the scene of 9/11 in New York City. This is a quality publication from a very fine establishment.
The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects