Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
I’ve known three pairs of people now, who have been a kidney donor and a recipient to that donated kidney. I know bits and pieces of their stories, more from the donor’s perspective than the recipient’s. In each case, the donor knew instinctively that she was meant to give her kidney, and each time, she was sure she would be a “match” to the recipient, which in fact she was.
So I was intrigued to read this moving account of journalist colleagues, who grow to be friends and eventually "kidneys-in-law” (their humor,) when Martha McNeil Hamilton donates her kidney to Warren Brown for transplant. It was poignant and illuminating to learn, from Brown’s perspective, the difficulties he lived with prior to the transplants. (Previously, his wife donated a kidney to him. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for Brown’s body.)
Brown and Hamilton each describe growing up in a segregated South—she, a white female, and he, a black male. As colleagues at the Washington Post, they moved beyond the segregation of their youth, to develop a strong friendship over the years. Both were journalists at the Washington Post during and after 9/11, so part of their story covers how they dealt with the stress of post 9/11, in the news media world, in addition to the health crises and personal challenges they faced.
Black and white and red all over : the story of a friendship
I have been familiar with many of Michelangelo's works since college when I took a class titled "The Arts and Letters of Michelangelo". A wonderful class, the professor greatly elaborated upon the Neoplatonic views that were circulating at this time among philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, and how Michelangelo incorporated these views into his artwork. I was happy to find that this book does the same thing, as well as, discusses the political and cultural climate of Italy in the late 15th to early 16th centuries. The author John Spike seems to have a keen insight and understanding into the artist.
Young Michelangelo tells us about Michelangelo's upbringing including his beginning as an artist under the direction of Domenico Ghirlandaio and in the garden of Lorenzo de' Medici. We are introduced to Michelangelo's first works, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs, as well as sketches he did after frescoes by Masaccio and Ghirlandaio. These extant works show how versatile and talented Michelangelo was as a young artist in different mediums. The book talks about his Bacchus, David, Pieta, and other early commissions before going into details about his long and complex relationship with Giuliano della Rovere, a.k.a. Pope Julius II. We see the beginnings of his longtime habit of taking on more in commissions than he could finish and leaving projects in an unfinished state.
The author, John Spike, is very good at explaining the different stresses in Michelangelo's life and interpreting his response to these stresses, whether they are the political climate of his native Florence, the wishes of a demanding patron, or competition from other artists. The opinion of many art historians is that three Italian Renaissance artists catapulted themselves above the rest in their ability to produce extraordinary artwork at this time. Michelangelo was one of these artists, the other two being Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio. Spike also discusses Michelangelo's interactions with these two artists. Michelangelo was put in direct competition with da Vinci through a fresco commission in Florence; Raphael he writes off as a young kid of mediocre talent until he also comes under the commission of the pope. Contemporaries who knew each other personally, it is very interesting to me to hear how they interacted with and perceived one another with their very different attitudes and quirks.
Spike has done a lot of research to write this book. I would like him to write a Part II that would be a biography of Michelangelo's later life talking about his continued issues with Julius II and his issues cooperating with his assistants. In my opinion, Young Michelangelo seems to abruptly end. There is no conclusion and the last work of art the author talks about in the work is actually a fresco by Raphael. The format of the book also seems a bit strange. The first chapters are of a nice length but the very last chapter of the book reminds me of a run-on sentence being much longer. It strikes me as unfinished and lacking conclusion; the subtitle is "the Path to the Sistine", so please, tell me about the Sistine in another book! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Michelangelo's early life though. It amazing the kinds of work he was able to produce at such a young age!
Young Michelangelo: the Path to the Sistine
If you love philosophy of religion like me, and like to wander the stacks in the 100/200's area, then you love reading about arguments for the existence of God, the rebuttals, the replies to the rebuttals, etc. It all begins with Saint Thomas Aquinas. In only a few pages, he gives us his famous five:
- The First Mover: everything is moved by something else. The tree was moved by the wind which was moved by the weather which was moved by something else, and so on. This could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with a "Prime Mover," a being that gets the ball rolling. That's God. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher that was not a Christian, believed in a Prime Mover (Thomas actually snatched the argument from him).
- The First Cause: everything that happens is caused by something else that usually comes before it. What caused you?--your parents, their parents, their parents, and so on. Because every physical event must have a cause, this could either go on to infinity, or it could stop with an "Uncaused Cause," the beginner of the Big Bang so to speak. That's God. Check out Dean Overman's book for a current example.
- Contingency: When I was a kid I remember sitting on the couch thinking: what if nothing existed at all? No universe. What would that be like? I closed my eyes and could only picture black space, but then I thought to myself: black space is not nothing, it's something! I couldn't imagine or even think about it; it was such a shocking thought. When we look around we see things that pop into existence and then die. They never had to be in the first place. What if everything was like that? If nothing has to exist, then we can imagine at time when nothing exists--no matter, no space, nothing! This is impossible because you can't get something out of nothing. Therefore there must be at least one thing that must necessarily exist. That's God. Check out Paul Davies "fine-tuning" argument in Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life.
- Degree: we use terms like "good" and "honest" and "noble" that point to some standard of perfection, some benchmark. When we say a person is honest, we are saying they have some degree of that virtue. There must be a concept of perfection, which helps us to know this. That's God.
- Teleology (Design): everything seems to be directed towards some goal, or end, or purpose. Even ants build complex houses, and everything seems to work together. The orchestrator behind all the design is God. Francis Collins, the DNA guy, has a similar argument in The Language of God.
Although these are Christian arguments, they are used for other monothestic religion (Islam, Judiasm) and probably others (they began as Greek arguments). The history of these five arguments is incredible; they have been transformed, altered, defended, rebutted, discarded, revived. Philosophy of Religionand Karen Armstrong's The Case for God will give you a good overview. Also don't forget Blaise Pascal's argument that, if you were a betting man, you should at least bet on God. And you must read William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, a very nuianced and pragmatic argument.
As for rebuttals, a good start would be The Atheist Debater's Handbook, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God (author doesn't think they're good reasons), God: The Failed Hypothesis, and The Portable Atheist.
Aquinas Shorter Summa
An avid history fan, I’m listening right now to a wonderful audiobook version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall. It’s a look at the England of Henry VIII, when Henry decided to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, and marry Ann Boleyn. Mantel portrays these turbulent political and religious times through the life of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was very much behind the scenes, and powerful. He came from humble beginnings. But he contrived to know the right people and got things done, first for his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, and later for Henry VIII, when Wolsey fell out of favor with the king. Cromwell is not always portrayed in a favorable light; here Mantel has made him a wholly believable and not unsympathetic figure.
Wolf Hall was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and it’s well deserved. Mantel is historically accurate, and the characters and times are fascinating in their detail. Library Journal’s review says, “There will be few novels this year as good as this one,” and I would concur. Author Hilary Mantel was born in England. She studied law at the London School of Economics, and has lived and worked in Botswana and Saudi Arabia, before returning to live in England.
What a fascinating look at the relationships between former presidents in The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.
Harry Truman first reached out to Herbert Hoover as they jokingly decided to form a “Presidents Club” to start the relationship between the current and former presidents.
Relationships and rivalries, some backstabbing and clashing egos are all described. However, all club members, no matter their political party, care deeply about the country and truly understand the challenges that go with the job.
The insights and stories are amazing in this well-written, most readable book.
The Presidents Club: inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
Most people don't know Howard Thurman (I didn't). You could say he was the John the Baptist to Martin Luther King Jr., the grandfather of African American nonviolence, a Gandhian, Christian, mystic, poet, and preacher.
Howard Thurman's childhood memories: burying his father because nobody else would (whites-only undertaker in their town); listening to the funeral sermon, which "preached my father into hell" because he wasn't officially Baptist. Thus we have the two things Howard Thurman fought against his whole life: Segregation and institutions.
But far more powerful memories sustained him: "The woods befriended me" and gave [me] "a sense of belonging...the ocean and the night gave me a sense of timelessness...death would be a minor thing." Of all the evils swirling around him, he would take solice in the storm and the God of the storm.
Like Tolystoy he became a Christian mystic, making a large distinction between "the religion of Jesus," which "offers me very many ways out of the world's disorders"--and Christianity. He felt God directly in nature, much like Emerson's "Original Experience"; a Chrisitian beyond Christianity: "the things that are true in any religious experience are to be found in that religious experience precisely because they are true; they are not true simply because they are found in that religious experience...this is not to say that all religions are one and the same, but it is to say that the essence of religious experience is unique, comprehensible, and not delimiting." This permeated his relationships: "That afternoon I had the most primary, naked fusing of total religious experience with another human being of which I have ever been capable."
A pivitol point in his life is when the president of his college called them "young gentleman": "What this term of respect meant to our faltering egos can only be understood against the backdrop of the South of the 1920's...the black man was never referred to as 'mister,' nor even by his surname...to the end of his days, he had to absorb the indignity of being called 'boy,' or 'nigger,' or 'uncle'." He was an amazingly disciplined intellectual:
the library was my refuge and my joy…at last the world of books was mine for the asking. I spent hours each week wandering around in the stacks, taking down first one book, then another, examining the title, reading the foreword and the table of contents, leafing through the pages, reading a paragraph here and there, getting the feel of the book and familiarizing myself with writers across centuries who would in time become as closely related to me as my personal friends…I kept certain books in the bathroom. Others I read only during the ten-minute intervals between classes…I would hasten to the next classroom, take my seat, and read until the lecture started.
He advocated for African American rights but, like his friend Martin Luther King Jr., he did so in a wholistic and strategic way: "Thurman would speak about race before white audiences, but on his own terms, and in his own way." He said: "This is always the problem of reformation: To put all of one's emphasis upon one particular thing and when that thing is achieved and the Kingdom of God has not come, then the reformer sits in the twilight of his idols."
After visiting Gandhi, Thurman really got to thinking about how to fix the problem of segregation and race problems in America. As a minister, he thought: how in the world can we tell the government to integrate white and black if our own religion is the most segregated institution in the country? It was embarrassing and wrong. Therefore, he helped create and became the minister of a truly interracial, multiculural church in San Franscisco. This was the legacy of Howard Thurman. Obviously his struggle continues.
Martin Luther King Jr. would listen to him preach in Boston: “He always listened carefully when Thurman was speaking, and would shake his head in amazement at Thurman’s deep wisdom” (192). Don't forget to supplement this book with Howard Thurman's autobiography With Head and Heart.
Visions of a Better World
Benjamin Franklin was a paragon of self-taught education. To learn how to write he literally took scholarly articles apart and put them back together (like a type setter would). Abigail Adams had no choice; being a woman in the 1750's, she had to teach herself. Andrew Jackson, an Irish farm kid, grew up in a sort of cowboy environment, open land, the time of the Regulators, no law, British invading and pillaging. His education was honor and violence.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sojourner Truth was growing up as a slave after the war when Noah Webster was writing his grammar book, arguing for abolition and a national language and education system. But her master could care less about emancipation, so she (literally) walked off to freedom with her one year old baby, living in the woods and finding work to survive. She realized that freedom was another form of slavery, and then became “Sojourner Truth,” a traveling minister and truth-teller like Frederick Douglas (When she met Lincoln he apparently tensed up and called her “Aunty,” as he would his washerwoman).
The boy Lincoln, who was obsessed with reading and mostly self-taught, said “among my earliest recollections, I remember how, when a mere child, I used to get irritated when anybody talked to me in a way I could not understand…that always disturbed my temper and has ever since.” This thirst and curiousity made him. Lincoln thought that reading separated him from the Natives. Thocmetony, aka "Princess Winnemucca," a Native "turned American," actually agreed. She grew up surviving, then tried to create a school for her people: "A few years ago," Sarah wrote the parents of her students, "you owned this great county; today the white man owns it all, and you own nothing. Do you know what did it? Education." Her school was to be different; it would not have this motto--"You cannot become truly American citizens...until the INDIAN within you is DEAD"--as the current ones did. It would be culturally integrated. Sadly, it failed and her people were virtually wiped out by the Trail of Tears.
Henry Ford, industrious to the core, had to learn by physically touching the machines (sort of like how Einstien had to visualize math). He thought education gives you a fundamental base, but after that vocational school is best (Booker T Washington might agree). Du Bois represents the beginning of high schools, which were actually created to Americanize the Irish immigrants bringing "discord, immorality, and poverty." Du Bois, a very poor boy with a poor, single, handicap mother, became the black kid that excelled among white kids; he was proving something. A man named Frank Hosmer became his mentor: teacher, president, progressive school reformer--a man who became part of Du Bois's "talented tenth" way of thinking.
Helen Keller is the story of the blind prodigy child. Rachel Carson (environmentalist) was a product of the "Montessori" school movement (back to nature, learn like the Natives). Elvis learned music at a poor, Pentecostal church. In fact, most of these great Americans grew up poor.
So what is the difference between Lincoln, Sojourner Truth and JFK?
Just as Carnegie thought libraries were "the great equalizer" between rich and poor, Horace Mann (founder of public schools) thought "free schools" were going to be the great equalizer. But many Americans were simply left out entirely (Sojourner Truth, Abigail Adams), and even those who could be schooled (Andrew Jackson) weren't schooled the same, as the chapter on JFK's education shows--privileged, private, rich. Even the teenage JFK says "how much better chance has [the] boy with a silver spoon in his mouth of being good than the boy who from birth is surrounded by rottenness and filth. This even to the most religious of us can hardly seem a 'square deal'." Talking about private schools, JFK's classmate said if you weren't "incorrigibly stupid or lazy" you could go to "any college you wanted."
I highly recommend this book. The author interweaves the stories brilliantly.
How Lincoln Learned to Read
If you agree with Emerson that "there is no history; only biography," then you will love the way Peterson describes the history of educational reform in American through its major players.
Before Horace Mann there was no State Board of Education, no "normal schools" to teach the teachers, no standard textbooks. After Horace Mann there was. John Dewey, sick of monotonous drilling and memorization, thought that teaching methods must match the student (not the other way around) and that arousing curiosity mattered. Before Martin Luther King Jr. there was black and white schools; after MLK they were mixed. Albert Shanker headed the teachers' rights movement, creating powerful unions. William Bennett used political sway to make school excellence a national issue. James Coleman was disgusted that schools resembled factories, and he thought more school choice was the answer. And last he looks at Julie Young and the potential of Virtual (online) Learning.
It's a gripping story and all the fun is in the details, especially since most of these reformers created unintended consequences, monsters they didn't see coming. And whether they indended or not, schools began as local, small, religion-based, women-taught, extensions-of-the-home. They ended as large, centralized, heavily regulated, state-run giants. The author also makes much out of unions and there tendency to block certain reforms, and you get a sense that the author is coming from a fiscally-conservative republican perspective. This book is fascinating even if you're democrat.
For similar books check out Left Back: a century of failed school reforms, The Little Red School House, Don't Whistle in School, The Underground History of American Education, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: how testing and choice are undermining education.
On segregation, check out Root and Branch and Silent Covenants. On pro-union history, try NEA: the first hundred years; for anti-union, check out Teacher Unions: how the NEA and AFT sabotage reform and hold students, parents, teachers and taxpayers hostage. On school choice, try Voucher Wars andBreaking Free and Rethinking School Choice.
Surviving an earthquake is one thing, but the aftermath is a groundswell in itself. How to you interpret natural disasters? How to you cope with tragedy? On All Saints Day in 1755, when most Lisbonians were in church, a giant Earthquake rocked the city. Then a tsunami. Then a fire. Lisbon was destroyed.
A very Catholic and religious city at the hight of the Inquisition (Shrady describes it as medieval and anti-enlightenment), Lisbon couldn't help but interpret the catastrophe as God's divine wrath, a call to repentance, a punishment for Lisbon's greed. The hell-fire sermons were brought out, dusted off, and shouted from the rubble pulpits.
But of course not everyone interpreted it this way, religious or not. Immanuel Kant (my favorite philosopher), argued it wasn't a moral phenomenon but a natural one. And if you had to read Candide in high school or college, you know that Voltaire took this as the perfect opportunity to expose (with satire) the "optimistic" philosophy of Leibniz and the rose-colored glass of theologians--that with God at the helm we must live in the "best of all possible worlds." Rousseau, criticizing Voltaire, takes a more middle position.
But it was a man named Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo who was on the ground, who rehabilitated the city, and who eventually tried to "enlighten" it. This book is mostly about him. He rebuilds Lisbon, becomes a powerful leader, kicks out all the Jesuits, builds a bunch of universities that teach science (natural philosophy), obolishes slavery, and puts a lot of people to death (not for heresy, but for people who are not with the program). The author describes him as an ambiguous despot, but a despot nonetheless. And for every political push there is a counter-push. Carvalho gets removed, ridiculed, and replaced with a Queen Maria who repeals all his progress. That's European history for ya, right?!
Since this book is more about the history of Lisbon, I recommend this book more for the history aspect, less for the theology/philosophy.
The Last Day
Desert Flower is a true story of a young woman’s journey from the Somali desert to the cat walk in New York City. I think most of us would assume this story is about a past practice and we would like to think that what happened to Waris would no longer happen to young women in any country, but we need to be aware that the archaic customs of the past are still very much a plague to the young women of Somalia. The purpose of Waris Dirie’s book Desert Flower was to raise a loud cry to violence, genital mutilation, and arranged marriages. For a few goats and camels elderly men can arrange a marriage to prepubescent girls. Waris felt that she needed to do something to stop the useless suffering of the young women of her country. Waris’ book tells of a little girl trapped as a Desert Nomad, a daughter to be bartered and a strikingly beautiful model. In the movie Liya Kebede does a beautiful job of taking us on Waris’ journey and helping us to see the turbulence a past practice causes.