Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
I know I'll get questions about how I happened to land on this book, so I'll address that issue right away. I saw a picture of the cover when I was reading The New York Times Book Review and it captured my attention. This winner of the 2013 Caldecott Medal is a story about a fish who steals a hat and thinks he got away with it.*
*But -- did he?
This is not my hat
The story of the building of the atomic bomb is often told from the scientific and decision making perspective. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, is the story from the perspective of young woman, many from the neighboring area in Tennessee, who went to work at Oak Ridge. They would not know until Hiroshima what they were working on, what part they were playing in the war effort.
The nine women highlighted here are each unique yet share a common bond. They are seeking an adventure or a way to better their lives, a commitment to the war effort, and a blind faith in their small part of a larger, unknown to them, project.
Equally interesting is the story of the companion effort underway in Los Alamos, New Mexico: 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the City of Los Alamos published in 2005.
The Girls of Atomic City
Although Zealot got attention mostly for the intriguing back story of the author Reza Aslan--a Muslim turned Christian turned Muslim--it should get attention for its excellent, smooth writing style, its clear portrayal of the history of the times of Jesus. What was it like back then? In a word, chaos; complete political turmoil, revolutionary, messiahs popping up left and right and getting killed by Rome left and right. In this regard, I enjoyed the book thoroughly and learned a lot.
But then there's the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. This is where the Christ that most people love exits stage left, is drastically different than the Jesus of history that Aslan proposes. According to the book, Jesus wasn't a very nice guy. His most defining act, the act that clarified "his theology," was when he went into the temple and started flipping over tables:
"So revelatory is this single moment in Jesus’s brief life that it alone can be used to clarify his mission, his theology, his politics, his relationship to the Jewish authorities, his relationship to Judaism in general, and his attitude toward the Roman occupation” (p. 73).
What happened to "turning your other cheek" and "love your enemies" Jesus? The author thinks these teachings were embellished and "abstracted;" he probably meant love your fellow Jews (not Romans or the Jewish priestly class, who were enemies). Remember the Garden of Gethsemane scene? Aslan says they were hiding, "armed," and had a "bloody" tussle with the arresting party. When Jesus claims he's the Messiah, it's sedition and worthy of death under Roman law. Remember when Jesus preaches the kingdom of God is "within you" or "at hand" or "like a tree with many branches"? "The Kingdom of God is a call to revolution," says Aslan, "plain and simple” and “God’s rule cannot be established without the destruction of the present order” (p. 119-120). And that's why they killed him.
Of course some will argue he is merely selecting those passages of the Gospels that fits his theory (after all, when it comes to the historical Jesus the Gospels are basically all there is). But he will argue that historians can figure out which passages are more historical than others. I'm not a historian, so I won't go there. But I will say there's an awkward disconnect going on between Aslan's portrayal of Jesus (violent) and what he says about Jesus at the end of the book. He laments that we have lost the historical Jesus because he is someone "worth believing in." He also says in interviews that he is a "follower of Jesus." Really? Which teachings? From reading the book you don't get it. But what I think he means is that he follows the Jesus who spoke "truth to power," a force of social justice who cared about the poor and did something about it; who ultimately defied the odds of history by somehow starting one of the greatest world religions ever known.
The Beatles Were Fab (and they were funny) by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer and illustrated by Stacy Innerst is a new favorite of mine! This biography, told like a story, follows the Beatles from their earliest days in Liverpool through the ends of Beatlemania. It also includes an historical timeline and a list of sources for more information. As the Horn Book reviewer said, "Youngsters wondering why the band is still beloved by their parents and grandparents will understand after reading the many humorous anecdotes." The charming illustrations include nods to various lyrics and anecdotes, like an address marker for Penny Lane and a Yellow Submarine on one page. My favorite part is the story about the Queen Mother laughing at John's jokes!
The Beatles Were Fab
Ever since Emile Durkheim came on the block, sociologists and historians have taken belief out of religion. Religious belief, they say, is nothing more than, reducible to, a way for people to come together--“social solidarity”. Supernatural beliefs are peripheral, epiphenomenal, don’t matter much, and come later.
Rodney Stark disagrees: to take God out is to completely miss the point of religion, what it means to people, and how it works in history. Or as one review put it: “Religious world views can no longer be reduced to race, class, gender, economics, social location, or one of the other shibboleths of secular academia.” What people actually think about God or Gods or witches or angels really affects how they act in history. And this lengthy book shows how.
Science, for example, comes from a particular conception of a single, intelligent, law-making creator God. Witch-hunting, a second example, came from specifically Christian doctrine and beliefs. Lastly, it was Quakers, he says, not “the Enlightenment” or “economic self-interest” that destroyed slavery. As you can see, one limitation with the book is that it focuses mainly on one form of monotheism, Christianity; and it mostly uses other religions as counterpoints (e.g., Christianity abolished slavery, and here is why Greek polytheism did not).
As I am not a historian, it would be very hard for me to critique or have an opinion on any of these points. I have certainly heard these arguments, but I've also heard arguments against them. Also check out my blogs on John Woolman and Galileo Goes to Jail. As for abolition of slavery, I think most people accept the fact that Christianity had major part to play—but of course everyone knows southern planters also used the Bible to defend slavery.
At any rate, it is a very dense, heavy, ambitious book, a whirlwind of world history, religion, theory and sociology. He comes off as an angry academic, sick and tired of the anti-Catholic and anti-religious biases that are at the bottom of these so-called secular historians (I was interested to find out Rodney Stark is not religious). He calls out scholars left and right, which makes it more entertaining and breaks up the textbook feel but borders on ad hominem attacks. I recommend for history buffs.
For the Glory of God
Dr. Mary Pipher brought the challenges adolescent girls face in our society to the forefront of our national discussion in the mid-1990s with her book Reviving Ophelia. Now she turns her attention to the global environmental crisis and how it is affecting us psychologically in her new book The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, which is getting great reviews.
Publisher’s Weekly writes, “As Pipher lucidly explains, the overwhelming amount of information about the desperate state of our planet leads to stress, avoiding discussion, willful ignorance, and outright denial, while the activist's call of 'Wake up!' is an ineffective remedy. Instead, Piper distinguishes between 'distractionable intelligence,' which makes us feel helpless, and 'actionable intelligence,' which combines information with suggestions for addressing problems, thus creating hope, motivation, and change.”
Will The Green Boat have the same cultural impact that Reviving Ophelia had? It certainly is a worthy subject.
The Green Boat
One of my absolute favorite cookbooks is the 1990 James Beard Award-winning Please to the Table: the Russian Cookbook by Moscow native Anya von Bremzen. The book allows me to recreate some of my delicious memories from the time I spent in Russia several years ago, with recipes for everything from adzhika to pirozhki to vareniki, originating from across the former Soviet Union. So naturally I was delighted to discover von Bremzen’s forthcoming memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, and I devoured it almost as quickly as a plate of blini.
Von Bremzen’s book is not simply about food—something that is so inextricably bound with culture, tradition, politics, economics, the environment. And it is not only personal memoir and family history, but a sweeping account examining the twilight years of the Russian Empire, the nearly 70 years of the Soviet Union’s existence, the Russian Federation’s bleak early days, as well as its more recent economic boom. Into this epic history, she weaves in details of her family’s experience. Like her paternal grandmother Alla, who was born in Central Asia, orphaned, and then raised by an early activist for women’s rights who was later exiled to Siberia. Alla moved to Moscow as a teenager, and brought Uzbek recipes with her. Von Bremzen’s mother’s bout with scarlet fever, suffered while subsisting on wartime rations, contrasts sharply with her first taste of Pepsi-Cola a decade later. And von Bremzen’s own experiences – rejecting on principle difficult-to-procure products like special candy from the Red October Chocolate Factory at her school for children of Communist Party elites, to her confusion over Pop Tarts as an immigrant in Philadelphia – are shared with earnestness.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a satisfying read, and especially suggested for readers of food memoirs like Gabrielle Hamilton’s candid Blood, Bones and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, or Russian culture enthusiasts who enjoyed Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking
August 28th will be the 50th Anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” This past weekend, tens of thousands of people marched on Washington, in commemoration of the event.
I looked for information at KPL about the 1963 march and what was happening here in Kalamazoo during that time. I found writings on the history and significance of the March on Washington, biographies of prominent march organizers such as A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and other civil rights workers, a video recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Local civil-rights events in 1963 included the picketing of the Van Avery drugstore and the October 6 Kalamazoo March for Equal Opportunities. To learn more local events the year ca. 300,000 people were marching in D.C. for jobs and freedom, visit KPL’s Local History desk. We have numerous files of newspaper clippings and microfilm access to the 1963 Kalamazoo Gazette.
The march on Washington : jobs, freedom, and the forgotten history of civil rights
I do love the picture books that Lucy Cousins creates! Her stories and illustrations are perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, featuring strong colors, chunky shapes, and concise yet complete storylines.
The latest is Peck, Peck, Peck, a square yellow book with finger-size holes punched through the heavy cover. “Today my daddy said to me, “It’s time you learned to peck a tree.” But once this essential skill is learned, will the little woodpecker stop at trees? I’ll bet you know the answer to that question!
Peck, Peck, Peck
There's been quite a bit of buzz about Suzy Lee's picture book creations in the last few years. They are wonderfully imagined yet seemingly simple picture books that get better with repeated readings. I was excited to see a new book illustrated by Lee and written by Jesse Klausmeier, Open this Little Book. When I opened the book I was glad I did. I don't want to say too much about it, except that it is wonderfully self-referential and is a wonder of design, in my opinion. This book is just perfect for repeated sharing with children. Open this Little Book has its own delicious internal logic and closure that is somehow deeply comforting to parent and child alike. I am hopeful you take time to enjoy it!
Open this Little Book