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Staff Picks: Books

Recovering Priceless Treasures

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 dangerous weapons.

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 years.

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!


American Folklife

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.

Book

Library of Congress American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide
9780844411064

Coded Racism

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.

book

dog whistle politics
9780199964277

An RCA Television?

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.

Book

The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects
9781594205293

Under the Egg

When Theodora’s grandfather dies, he leaves her a whispered message and the responsibility to care for her drifty mother, their Brooklyn townhouse, and $463 to hold it all together.

Over the course of this layered story, Theo and her new friend Bodhi work on deciphering the message, which sends them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jefferson Market Public Library, the Center for Jewish History.

Under the Egg is an adventure story that gives the reader terrific characters, World War II history, good guys and bad guys, and a lot of wonderful information about art.

Book

Under the Egg
9780803740013

Vintage Toys

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!

Book

Toy time! : from hula hoops to He-Man to Hungry Hungry Hippos : a look back at the most- beloved toys of decades past
9780385349123

A “Get the Facts” Story!

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.

Book

Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America
9781419708466

Are Geniuses Made or Born?

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?

book

Einstein and oppenheimer
9780674028289

Another Look Back at the 1960s

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.

Book

Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America
9780762780358

The Mad Potter

The arresting photo on the cover of this book caught my eye and I was quickly drawn into the quirky world of George Ohs, who called himself The Mad Potter.

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1871, George Ohs was a largely self-taught potter, making items like no one had ever seen before. It wasn’t until long after his death that the art world came to appreciate what he called his “mud babies.”

The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius tells his fascinating story and is illustrated with intriguing historic photographs.

Book

The Mad Potter
9781596438101

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster

Vacationing on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula’s scenic west coast shoreline is a wonderful choice. More than one hundred years ago Buster Keaton’s family and their vaudeville team vacationed in Bluffton, near Muskegon. Matt Phelan wrote and illustrated a graphic novel titled: Bluffton: My Summers with Buster.

The story, told in remarkable drawings, is about a boy named Henry Harrison who lives in Muskegon year round. Henry hears about the vaudevillians and is captivated by the performers and their animals! He and the young Buster Keaton form a summer friendship and they hang out and play baseball with other kids. When summer ends, kids go back to school, but not for Buster! Buster travels around doing vaudeville acts, then returns to Bluffton the next summer. Bluffton offers a glimpse into the life of one of the world’s most well-known silent screen actors and the few summers he lived on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Go back in time and watch Buster Keaton’s black and white slapstick silent films on KPL’s Hoopla site. It’s accessible directly from the KPL catalog, just enter Buster Keaton in the search field.

Book

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster
9780763650797

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain

What do you know about “the other Ellis Island?” Between 1910 and 1940, Angel Island was the port of U.S. entry for thousands of Asians seeking a new life in America. Russell Freedman’s new book: Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain tells the story of those who passed through, those who were detained, and those who never made it any further into the U.S. before returning to their country of origin.

Especially poignant are the poems that were carved into and painted on barracks walls: “Nights are long, the pillow cold; who can comfort my solitude? . . . Shouldn’t I just return home and learn to plow the fields?” Discovered by a maintenance worker long after the facility closed, the poems have been preserved and incorporated into the public areas of this National Historic Landmark.

Book

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain
9780547903781

Everything but the Kitchen Sink (almost)

In this book we received just last year, Eric Chaline indicates that his survey of iconic machines goes back not "to the invention of the hand ax or wheel, but begins in 1801, with the first successful application of automation to weaving, which had until then been the preserve of the skilled artisan."  Among the 50 machines profiled with brief historical treatments and artwork are the Singer sewing machine, Underwood No. 1 typewriter, diesel engine, Kodak camera, Westinghouse AC system, Model T Ford, Black and Decker electric drill, Saturn V rocket, Magnox nuclear reactor, GE top-loading washing machine, Atari 2600, Sony Walkman, IBM PC 5150, and the Hubble Telescope. This is informative and entertaining at the same time. I was hoping to see my old friend/nemesis the Regiscope included, but didn't find it. Maybe it will be in the next edition.

Book

Fifty machines that changed the course of history
9781770850903

Marie Curie

I have this vague recollection of learning about Marie Curie at some point, knew she had won the Nobel Prize, and knew she had worked in the area of radium and cancer treatment. That was about all I knew.

Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family is a joint biography of Marie and her daughters Irene and Eve. Their struggles against the extraordinary prejudice towards women in science are described, along with their tours of the US to raise $50,000 to buy radium for research, and the health effects of their work.

Its not all science… the relationship between Marie and her daughters, Marie’s near nervous breakdown over a love affair, and Irene’s blindness about Communist regimes are all described.

This very readable book was written with the cooperation of Irene’s daughter who provided access to family letters and journals.

Those interested in science, women’s struggles in the sciences, mother / daughter relationships, the 1920’s would enjoy this book.

Book

Marie Curie and her daughters : the private lives of science's first family
9780230115712

He Said, She Said

This is a high-school love story with a subplot about protesting arts funding cuts at their high school. The chapters bounce back and forth between Omar “T-Diddy” Smalls and Claudia Clarke, newspaper editor. They are both seniors at West Charleston High School in South Carolina. T-Diddy was born in the Bronx, but was sent to live with his uncle Albert two years ago to avoid trouble with the law. T-Diddy is the star quarterback of the Panthers and he is pumped by the defeat of their Powerhouse rivals: Bayside Tornadoes.

Although Claudia is turned-off by playas like T-Diddy, she soon realizes his clout with his social media skills at bringing classmates together to protest Arts cuts. T-Diddy is dedicated to restoring arts funding to their school and so is Claudia. They realize the power of collaboration. Their Principal, Dr. Brenda Jackson, aka Cruella, supports the cuts made by the school board, including the drama guild, the poetry club, the choir, and the marching band, library closure three days a week, and several teachers and staff lay-offs. However, these cuts become unacceptable to T-Diddy, Claudia, and the rest of the student body.

As Omar and Claudia spend more time together, their young love blossoms. Omar’s Uncle Albert supports their protests and provides knowledge he gained during the Civil Rights Movement.

This is definitely a worthwhile read for all teens and reinforces the power and strength of togetherness.

Book

He Said, She Said
9780062118967

A star for Mrs. Blake

I saw A star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith on a recommended list, and I’m so glad that I did. Historical fact skillfully blends with fiction to make a story that’s hard to put down.

It’s the story of five very different women, brought together in 1930 by a single shared experience- each of them had a son who was killed in World War I. That heartbreaking fact made each of them each a “Gold Star Mother”, an actual United States government designation. Thousands of women all across the country were offered the chance to travel to Europe to visit the final resting place of their sons, with all expenses paid by the United States.

In Smith’s novel, the five “Gold Star” women who are the focus couldn’t be more different. Cora, the youngest, is a librarian from rural Maine. Then there is Minnie, wife of an immigrant Russian Jewish chicken farmer; Katie, an Irish maid from Massachusetts; Wilhemina, the emotionally fragile wife of a banker, and Bobbie, a rich socialite from Boston. Joining hundreds of other Gold Star women, they travel by ship to France, where unexpected experiences and chance meetings will change their lives forever.

I did a little research and discovered that in 1929, Congress passed legislation that allowed mothers and widows of sons who died in service between the years of 1917 and 1921 the right to make a “pilgramage” to Europe to visit the resting place of their son. By 1933, when the project ended, almost 6,700 women out of an eligible 17,389 had made the trip.

It’s a fascinating story, and well told. For a change of pace, also try author April Smith’s mystery series featuring FBI agent Ana Gray. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in those, either.

Book

A star for Mrs. Blake
9780307958846

The People's Car!

In the 1950s and 1960s it was not unusual to see lots of Volkswagen Beetles around the Kalamazoo area. One that I remember with fondness was owned by two of my esteemed colleagues, FDC and GO, long past the time that the car was in its heyday. I always enjoyed seeing that car go by. Today there is the New Beetle in colors that vary quite a bit from the original Type 1. About six months ago KPL acquired a well-documented history of the VW Beetle. I particularly liked looking at the ads that are interspersed throughout the text. Anyone interested in automotive history or advertising practices of the mid- to late 20th century would appreciate this fine effort.

Book

The People's Car : a global history of the Volkswagen Beetle
9780674050914

Courage Has No Color

Recently, I’ve come across some fascinating non-fiction books for kids. I’ve just finished Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone.

Full of wonderful photos, this book tells the story of the men who served in the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion out of Fort Benning, Georgia. These soldiers became America’s first black paratroopers and author Tanya Lee Stone uses their story to explore the role of African Americans in the military. This is a great addition to the literature of World War II.

Tanya Lee Stone also wrote Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, another book that sheds light on a little-known aspect of American history.

Book

Courage Has No Color
9780763651176

A Librarian with a Statistics Degree?

Yes, I studied actuarial science before getting my library science degree, which statement probably prompts most of you to think, “I didn’t even know those two sciences existed.” But I bring this up, because I am currently enjoying reading/listening to three books on three completely different subjects, but where numbers and statistics play a big part: 

 
The Big Short by Michael Lewis


Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant


The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by David Sally


Lewis’ book The Big Short is a well- known bestseller that explains the financial meltdown of 2008. It is fascinating and infuriating and may leave you swearing like a Wall Street bond trader (bond trader is worthy of replacing sailor in that cliché).


In Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant tells the story of the Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal study that started in 1938 and has followed almost three hundred men of which the survivors are in their 90s now. The study was started as an attempt to, “transcend medicine’s usual preoccupation with pathology and learn something instead about optimum health and potential and the conditions that promote them.” The conclusions are interesting as well as the different factors they study over time that they think might lead to optimum health and the changes in the definition of optimum health. 

 
Sally’s book The Numbers Game is to soccer what Moneyball (written by Michael Lewis who wrote The Big Short) is to baseball. As he crunches the numbers, he comes up with conclusions like launching corner kicks into the box hoping to score a goal is less valuable than just retaining possession with a short safe pass and that the team that takes the most shots on goal actually loses slightly more than half of the time. 

 
Isn’t it great that libraries have books to please all sorts of tastes? 

Book

The Numbers Game

9780143124566

 


Some Good, Some Not

Here I go again. The library's non-cook is writing about a cookbook. But, the historical aspect of this book is what attracted me to it. There are 100 recipes here, one for each year from 1901-2000, included by 100 different chefs. To give the readers of this blog a flavor (pun intended) of what's in this book, I'll list a few of the recipes: 1909 - Baked Alaska; 1910 - The Comet Coupe (in honor of Halley's Comet that year); 1932 - "The Sun Also Rises" Punch; 1945 - Original Brain Tapioca Ambrosia (not the brain one thinks with, but because of the invention of the ENIAC computer); 1952 - Geraldine's Maryland Crab Soup; 1976 - Firecracker Fourth of July Beef Ribs (to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial); 1979 - Meatball and Potato Pizza. Some of the 100 sound delicious; others I would never consider touching. But I think that's how it would be for anyone looking at any recipe book, not just me. Clever and fun idea - yes. Good photos - yes. Bon appetit - maybe.

Book

The way we ate : 100 chefs celebrate a century at the American table
9781476732725

Books with a Year Focus

Books focusing on one year are not uncommon, but there seems to be a rash of them lately, almost like a new emphasis in publishing.

Earlier this year, I read One Summer: America, 1927 – Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone…. what a summer, what an interesting time in our history.

I recently read and blogged about Ready for a Brand New Beat with a focus on the summer of 1964.
Now I’m reading The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America.

As I browsed our new nonfiction shelves yesterday I noticed Chicago’s Greatest Year, 1893; Constellation of Genius: 1922; and Japan 1941.

Just an observation for what it is worth on a cold, snowy day…

Book

One Summer: America, 1927
9780767919401

Ready for a Brand New Beat

If you grew up to the music of the ’60s or grew up in Detroit or both, you are likely to relate to Ready for a Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America.

The question asked is… can a song change a nation? In 1964 “Dancing in the Street” was recorded at Motown’s Hitsville USA by Martha and the Vandellas. Martha Reeves arranged her own vocals and the song was released with the expectation it would be an upbeat dance song.

Ultimately it became a sort of anthem for the summer of 1964: Mississippi Freedom Summer, Vietnam War, free speech movement, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The song took on a new meaning for many and was eventually recorded by more than 30 artists or groups.

A good dance song or an activist anthem for the changing times…. either way, this is an interesting look at the mid-1960s.

Book

Ready for a Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America
9781594487224

Inventing the American Guitar

If you’re interested in American guitar history, you’ll want to explore this comprehensive new work about C.F. Martin and his contemporaries’ early technical developments in guitar design and manufacture. In a relatively short period of time before 1865, C.F. Martin and other builders developed and incorporated significant refinements, most notably an X-braced top capable of withstanding the higher string tension to which a steel-stringed guitar would be subjected. While Martin may or may not have invented X-bracing, his guitars were to the first to exploit this bracing system on a large scale.

Of course, folks in Kalamazoo get pretty excited about that other well-known granddaddy of the American guitar, Orville Gibson, who famously applied violin building techniques to mandolins and guitars. Arched-top mandolins and guitars? Yep, invented right here in Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo is rightly proud of the stack and factory on Parsons Street where luminaries such as Lloyd Loar, Thaddeus McHugh, Ted McCarty, and others ran with Orville’s early ideas and made industrial design and musical instrument history.

From a business history standpoint, these two icons of American guitar manufacture are very different. Orville Gibson sold his nascent business and patent to a small group of Kalamazoo industrialists in 1902. Gibson Guitar relocated its headquarters to Nashville in 1981. The Heritage Guitar Company continues to build in the Parsons Street building today. C.F. Martin & Company, still located in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, remains a family owned business more than 175 years later.

Your Kalamazoo Public Library has lots of great books on guitar history. This new work is definitely worth checking out. I like it because it focuses on little-known technical history before the American Civil War – no dreadnaughts to be found here. The full color plates of many of the very earliest C.F. Martin instruments in this large format book are truly gorgeous to behold.

Book

Inventing the American Guitar
9781458405760