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Staff Picks: Books

Our Better Angels

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

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.

 


A Southern Page-Turner

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.

 


Some Luck

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.


Mind your own business (AKA the story of Brann's)

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.

 


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