Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
It’s difficult to imagine now but during the late 1980s and into the 90s, Apple Inc. was a struggling, poorly managed computer company trying unsuccessfully to compete with the Windows based PC that was quickly dominating the exploding computer market and putting Apple at deaths door. Also hard to believe is the fact that during most of that time, a time distinguished by uninspired mac models and failed device launches, Apple had Jony Ive, the industrial designer credited for the much imitated Apple “look and feel”, working in their design department. Much of the credit for Apple’s remarkable turnaround gets assigned to Steve Jobs; and rightly so. But it is specifically Job’s decision to move Apple from engineering based to a design-driven company and put his faith in the very talented Jony Ive that would lead to the string of industry changing products that eventually made Apple the most valuable company in the world. Not since Dieter Rams and the Braun Company in the 1950s has a designer’s ethos aligned so successfully with a corporation and not surprisingly Ive sights Rams (and his famous 10 principles of good design) as a strong influence on his work. But unlike Dieter Rams, for someone who’s designs have become cultural icons (just think about those white headphones alone!) next to nothing is known about the quiet and very private Jony Ive. But that has now changed a bit with the publication of Leander Kahney’s bio of Ive, Jony Ive : the genius behind Apple's greatest products. While the book doesn’t dive too terribly deeply into Ive’s personal life, it does a good job detailing his design career and outlining his close relationship with Jobs and the hard work and minute attention to each and every detail that has marked his, and Apple’s, success.
Jony Ive: the genius behind Apple's greatest products
I am not much of a laugh-out-louder, but I found myself
doubled-over with tears in my eyes more than once while reading This is
ridiculous, this is amazing : parenthood in 71 lists by comedic blogger Jason
Good, of JasonGood.net. Here Good compiles lists that many parents can relate
to, including “Reasons your toddler might be freaking out” (he jumped off the
sofa and we weren’t watching) and my personal favorite, “Oh, the new and
wonderful new things you’ll get to do” (put someone in a Bob the Builder
costume while fighting off diarrhea). There are actually some good tips that
can be gleaned from several of his lists, like “Games you can play while lying
down,” which if done correctly, will allow you to catch a quick nap (Put all
the sunglasses and hats on Daddy) (Put Daddy in ‘sofa jail’) (Vacuum Daddy). I
can particularly relate to the list “Love hurts : especially my shoulder” where
Good details various injuries he’s sustained playing with and chasing around
kids…brought me back to two summers ago when I injured my knee jumping on a
trampoline with my daughter, then re-injured it a few months later while doing
a side slide on the kitchen floor to Don’t stop believin’. I was forced to wear
a knee brace for four months until the knee finally healed. Ahhhhh…parenthood
has its struggles. But thanks, Jason Good, for making me see the humor in them.
This is ridiculous, this is amazing
I love attending the Circus Maximus Antique Toy Show every May and November at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center. It's such a festive gathering, and the architects and contractors certainly did a nice job on the new and renovated buildings there. Looking at this book isn't quite as good as being at the show, but there are compensating factors, such as being able to read the histories of many toys I played with as a child. Arranged by type of toy rather than chronologically, the author provides two-page narratives with photographs of toys from the 1940s to the 1990s. Here are Play-Doh, Tonka Trucks, Rubik's Cube, Frisbee, Etch-A-Sketch, and Magic 8-Ball, along with many others. I especially enjoyed being reminded of the Vac-U-Form, since my cousin John in Grand Rapids had one. I can still remember how the plastic smelled when we heated it up!
Toy time! : from hula hoops to He-Man to Hungry Hungry Hippos : a look back at the most- beloved toys of decades past
As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. I love graphic novels –stories told using both pictures and words—because you can glean so much of the emotion and action of the story from the artwork. I recently read two poignant memoirs, which explore the final years of the lives of beloved parents.
In Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my Mother, and Me, the beauty is in the great detail that Sarah Leavitt shares with the reader. Some of the details are frustrating and heartbreaking to read and see, as her mother gradually loses more and more of her capacity to thrive; still, the little daily challenges and special moments shared by family are what make caregiving for an ailing loved one so rewarding.
Joyce Farmer illustrates the final four years of her father and stepmother, Lars and Rachel, in Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir. Her writing and drawing style are much different than Leavitt’s, but again, you feel the full emotion of her experience supporting them in their final years.
I was struck by the role of cats in each of these books. Note p. 192 of Special Exits, where the beloved Siamese cat, Ching, is loving on her “Daddy” so much that he can’t breathe. In five cartoon boxes, author Farmer paints love and affection between cat and human, while deftly illustrating the frailty of her dying father. In Tangles, (p. 65-66) Mom adores Lucy the cat, who actually wants nothing to do with her. Even though Leavitt admits to feeling some jealousy of her mother’s adoration of the cat, she makes little books with cards and photos about Lucy, which her mom then carries around with her. The picture of the cat hiding under the covers on Mom and Dad’s bed is simple, yet priceless.
We have quite a few other memoirs in our graphic novel collection.
Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir
Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene; we need an ethical code that transcends each particular one.
And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad.
Can we agree on that?
Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?
As for me, I must say, I am convinced. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now. To explain, I have always admired the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, whom I named my son after. Kant has a strict, rule based, "no exceptions" morality (never life, never cheat, never steal); in other words, your basic religious morality with a rational spin. John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. Now, finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. Which, for me, means a lot (check out my personal blog for more). In fact, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.
I appreciate that Tonya Bolden took on the awesome responsibility of researching this story. It is an amazing story with a wellspring of information.
Sarah Rector was a Creek Freedman born in Indian Territory in 1902. Her grandparents had been slaves to Creek Indians and her grandfather was among the Blacks in the Company D that joined the pro-union First Indian Home Guard which was formed to fight against the confederate army.
The story that Tonya Bolden tells is about Sarah receiving an allotment of land as a child and then, as fortune has it, after her father had been struggling to pay the taxes and would have given the land away he leases it to Devonian Oil Company and oil is struck big time. Sarah becomes the richest black girl in America!
And although, oil gushes from the wells on her land, that is not the crux of Sarah’s story. Her story is what happens after she becomes the richest child of the “colored” race. Besides a new house and a car, wealth brings newspapers articles, marriage proposals, half truths, lies, assumptions, mistrust and accusations to and about Sarah’s family.
Read this very interesting, troublesome and yet comforting story to see why Tony Bolden titled it Searching for Sarah Rector: the richest black girl in America. It will yank at your heart strings and send you tumbling in so many different directions that you will want to know more. I hope that I learn from the example that Miss Bolden set by telling both sides and explaining the half truths of this intriguing story.
Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America
Was Einstein one-of-a-kind? Was he original, special, unique—so unique that nobody else could have possibly come up with the theory of relativity? There will never be another Einstein. Or, was he made, a product of the time, a small part in a larger collaborative scientific environment—at the right place at the right time? There are many Einstein’s.
Of course the answer is probably in the middle, and we sometimes forget that there are many other geniuses in history and alive today. (Good Will Hunting is a great movie on the subject). Einstein does get a “special” place, “relatively” speaking; we give him more “space” and more “time” than any other genius (puns intended)—perhaps deservingly so. Look up genius in the dictionary, you see Einstein’s silly little wise grin.
The author of this book thinks that, on the whole, genius is a product of a particular culture and that major scientific advances could have been made by many different people at any given time. Nobody is that special. Science is collaborative. Einstein disagrees: “Einstein believed that ‘great men’ shaped history and that advances in the arts, in the humanities, and in science were due to the contributions of outstanding individuals who labored in the solitude of the creative process” (27). Isaac Newton particularly comes to mind here. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, a contemporary of Einstein, stressed the collective nature of science a little more.
To become an Einstein, I believe many stars must align. First, geniuses really do exist, they are different; they have an Intel Quad-Core processor, we have an abacus. My mom said life’s not fair and she’s right. Second, education and upbringing. If the flower isn’t watered, if the fire isn’t kindled, if the…you get it. Einstein was well read and widely read. “I am really more of a philosopher than a physicists,” he once said. The fact that he read Kant’s ideas on space and time has a lot to do with how he developed his own ideas. Third, a thriving culture of learning is required, especially for science types. Also, it’s very important to remember that you don’t have to be a “genius” be do great things (indeed, Einstein considered ‘moral geniuses’ like Jesus and Gandhi).
What do you think?
Einstein and oppenheimer
Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records by Mark Carwardine is a fascinating and addictive book about truly amazing animal records. It is quite comprehensive, utilizing the traditional animal classification system of groups, orders, families and species for organizational purposes.
The main goal is to “celebrate the wonders of the natural world and particularly its diversity.” For example, the box jellyfish found off the coast of Australia carries enough venom in it to kill sixty adult humans. At least seventy people have died from its stings, more so than from shark and crocodile attacks combined in that part of the country. In fact, some succumbed in as little as four minutes from the time they came in contact with the jellyfish’s tentacles.
The book also points out that quite a few of these record breaking animals are endangered and close to extinction, such as the white, black, Indian, Sumatran and Javan rhinoceroses. These rhinos hold a number of records including thickest skin on a mammal.
This volume will captivate kids with fantastic photographs and keep them reading and learning astonishing facts which are presented in a fast and fun way. A great gift for your young nature lover or a good reference volume just to have in your own book collection.
Natural History Museum Book of Animal Records
There are many recent books about various aspects of the 1960s – 50 years ago. I’m drawn to these books as the time when I grew up but was not old enough to fully understand and appreciate the significance of many events.
I grew up in Pennsylvania and attended the NY World’s Fair in the summers of 1964 and 65. I remember many of the major exhibits. Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America tells the back story of the politics of the fair told against the times: the Kennedy assassination, the US and the Soviet Union, Malcolm X and racial issues, color TV, the Ford Mustang, Disney World, the Beatles.
This is a history of the mid 1960s with the World’s Fair as a reflection of the times. It is fascinating reading if you attended the fair or not.
Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America
The book Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala is the London survivor's account of the Indian Ocean Tsunami that struck the day after Christmas while her family was vacationing in her native Sri Lanka in 2004. Sonali lost her husband, both precious young sons, both parents, and good friend in an instant as they were swept away, trying to escape the monstrous wave that suddenly engulfed their coastal hotel on an otherwise calm, sunny morning. Sonali, swept inland and back out again by the wave, eventually clung to a branch and survived. The book starts off with these horrifying events, then plunges into the agony and despair that is the new reality for Sonali. Numbing alcohol, wanting to die, guilt, blame, anger. As she tells the story of years leading up to the devastation, she memorializes the love of of her life, Steve, and his mouth-watering cooking, 8 year-old Vik who played cricket, 5 year-old Malli who put on shows with puppets and costumes, and long holidays with her parents Aachchi and Seeya at Sonali's childhood home in Colombo. This book is a sad, sad book...but it is also a beautiful love story.