Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
If you are looking for a funny, poignant, delightfully read audio book, The Dog Who Came in From the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith, is just the thing.
The dog in question is a Pimlico terrier, with the rather elegant name of Freddie de la Haye. Freddie and his owner, William, a middle aged wine merchant, live in alively London neighborhood apartment building called Corduroy Mansions, with a varied, quirky assortment of residents.
To his complete surprise, William is approached by British intelligence agency M16 who want to recruit Freddie for a spy mission. It involves placing a tiny recording device in Freddie’s collar, and putting the dog in the middle of a Russian spy ring to monitor conversations.
The mystery involving Freddie is intertwined with stories of Corduroy Mansions residents’ lives, loves and foibles and the reader, Simon Prebble, brings just the right touch to the tale and the characters.
Many readers may recognize the author McCall Smith from the Ladies’ #1 Detective Agency series and other books. The first title in the series about Freddie and his human friends, Corduroy Mansions, is also available at Kalamazoo Public Library.
The Dog Who Came in From the Cold
It is always a pleasure to find an author whose books are so enjoyable that one finds oneself eagerly anticipating each new arrival. Six years ago, I read And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander, and I’ve been delightedly reading each and every book in the series. These appealing mysteries are set in nineteenth century Europe, and feature Lady Emily Ashton, a feisty heroine who is always stumbling across a mystery, and who contravenes the prescribed behavior for upper class young ladies in her pursuit of adventure, solutions, and an exciting, authentic life.
The most recent title, A Crimson Warning, has just been published. I’m waiting for an uninterrupted moment to curl up with a cup of tea, a cat, and this undoubtedly engaging book.
A crimson warning
Ordinarily when one would like a synonym for a word, one uses a regular English dictionary. Sometimes if more alternatives are needed, a thesaurus is consulted. And now, here is a thesaurus for just the word GREAT and a few other superlatives. Recognizing that the usual terms for GREAT (amazing, awesome, unbelievable, etc.) are overused, author Arthur Plotnik has compiled a 244-page book that gives some commentary and more than 5700 choices of synonyms in order to provide variation in speech and writing. Probably as much for entertainment as for practical use, this volume, received in June, is available in the circulating collection.
Better than great : a plenitudinous compendium of wallopingly fresh superlatives
I just recently traveled to the east coast for my husband’s big birthday celebration. Our entire time on the road was spent listening to the audiobook titled Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill. What a great experience it was for the both of us, plus it made a fourteen hour trip just fly by.
The story is about a girl named Aminata who was abducted from Africa as a child and enslaved in South Carolina. Through her eyes, a terrifying part of history comes to vivid life. The narrator’s voice is so captivating that you can’t stop listening until the story ends and then you want more. The language is so poetic at times about a subject so cruel. Here is a quote from the book that I love “If the sky was so perfect why is the earth all wrong?” The story covers six decades of her life and her three crossings of the Atlantic.
My husband, a history buff, enjoyed the audiobook so much that he’s now going to the library and checking out his own audiobooks. He just finished Abraham Lincoln by George McGovern and is currently listening to Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Being a reciprocal borrower, he was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of resources Kalamazoo Public Library has to offer its patrons.
Someone Knows My Name
Don’t you love the cover of this Halloween book? Denise Fleming’s artwork in all of her books is so rich and vibrant...and this nighttime sky is the perfect background for the pumpkins and creatures.
Pumpkin Eye is a great choice for pre-schoolers: the slightly scary mood balanced by costumed friends and deliciously descriptive words. It’s such a fun Halloween treat!
This past July, I posted a blog about kitten care. That effort came about as a result of our family’s recent adoption of two rescue kittens. As promised then, this is an update about their and our family’s progress together.
The two kittens, Graham and Lionel are a little over six months old now, which means that their individual looks and personalities are beginning to shine through. And at this point in time, they don’t look or act like there is much common parental heritage. While it is true that kittens born to the same litter are more likely to share only their mother’s genes since they have different fathers, in this case even a remote resemblance to maternal ancestry seems to be hidden.
Both Graham and Lionel are supposedly of mixed breed, but that has not prevented them from being quite handsome. Graham in particular appears to have more than a smidgen of some pure bred feline in him. He has very soft, long fur and an especially elongated, bushy and willowy tail. He seems to know of the attractiveness of his back extremity, and will take every opportunity to show it off by swaying it back and forth in an exaggerated manner whenever a human is in the vicinity; somewhat reminiscent of a feather boa in the beckoning hands of an old timey cabaret dancer. In addition to drawing attention to himself, Graham also has found a more utilitarian use for its length by completely covering his nose and ears with it when he wishes to sleep undisturbed.
After doing some research in The Encyclopedia of the Cat by Bruce Fogle, DVM, my husband now firmly believes that he is mostly Norwegian Forest cat, a breed that possesses pronounced tufts on their ears and paws, as does our Graham. Whatever is his lineage, it’s clear that he is proud of his good looks. He washes himself much more than his brother, and often purrs with enjoyment while doing so. Actually, Graham purrs most of the time because he is one very happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care kitten!
Lionel on the other hand is a short haired orange and white tabby with attractive markings on his back. He is a bit smaller than his brother, but whatever he lacks in stature and looks, he seems to have made up for by having more than his share of smarts. In both looks and personality, he closely resembles our beloved Cosmo, who died from renal failure last February. Lionel learns quickly, understands commands and is very enthusiastic when it comes to playtime.
Both kittens respect Ollie our other cat, three years their senior. To our surprise, he has taken upon himself the task of surrogate parent, washing each kitten regularly, showing them where the chipmunks come to the sliding glass door, and when are proper nap times, snack times etc. If they don’t show respect to him and his direction, he does not hesitate to swat them with his oversized front paws or give them a sharp nip, thereby reminding the miscreant who is boss.
Unfortunately for Patrick, our four pound house bunny, pet politics in our home has turned somewhat for the worse. Whereas Ollie has always left Patrick alone, both Lionel and Graham have developed an unhealthy fondness for the game of “Hunters and Hunted”, with you know who being reluctantly yet steadfastly cast as prey. Whenever they get bored and left to their own devices, both kittens begin stalking, chasing and roughhousing with Patrick. We on the other hand try the best we can to get it through to them that this is a big no-no. This is usually accomplished with a few well aimed squirts of water from a spray bottle, accompanied with whoops and hollers of reprimand. While water is of course harmless, it is also disliked by most cats, and this combination has been most effective in dissuading Lionel from engaging in this behavior. However, Graham seems to enjoy all things aquatic, (again my husband blames this on his Norwegian Forest cat ancestry) and is curious and amused as to why anyone would want to spray him with water, how we accomplish this feat and even how the water bottle sprayer works. But however slowly, both kittens are learning that the pursuit of bunnies is not an acceptable diversion, and find other ways to amuse themselves. This is a good sign that they are maturing and that their listening /obeying skills are on the increase; a major positive for both our household and Patrick’s nerves.
Every evening I organize a play session with all three felines - Ollie, Graham and Lionel - that lasts for about 45 minutes, so that they can all chase, jump, retrieve and especially interact with one another. This last activity is most important since it builds positive feelings about each other, while decreasing jealousies. No one ever misses playtime; it’s clearly the highlight of their hectic day, which includes many naps, eating, drinking, listening to mellow music and getting into whatever mischief they can. And so our three feline family members live a life of comfort and relative harmony.
Hmmm, I wonder how Patrick feels about that “harmony” part?
The Encyclopedia of the Cat
Perhaps his most controversial ideas were about God and love (he was called an "atheist" by many). "God loves no one and hates no one." This of course, would not agree with most people at the time (or now), but his reasoning seems good for most theology: "for God is not affected with any affect of joy or sorrow"..."God is free from passions." So he is actually talking about the "passion" of love, not the "intellectual love," which God does have for us:
“God, in so far as He loves Himself, loves men…the love of God towards men and the intellectual love of the mind towards God are one and the same thing.” Intellectual love is “eternal,” not like the passion of love, which is nothing but what the body feels at the time. “The intellectual love of the mind towards God is part of the infinite love with which God loves Himself.” And: “This intellectual love necessarily follows from the nature of the mind, in so far as it is considered, through the nature of God, as an eternal truth. If there were anything…contrary…it would be contrary to the truth.”
What may be even more controversial in Spinoza's time was his amazingly idealistic views on human nature. We can only love God, he says, because we share in the very same love as God loves himself; in other words, we share in God's perfection, "the mind is endowed with perfection itself." Much like a system of geometry, these philosophical beliefs actually follow from his other philosophical principles.
To understand his thoughts on love, you have to understand a little about Spinoza's non-belief in free will ("the mind is determined to this or that volition by a cause, which is also determined by another cause, and this again by another, and so on ad infinitum") and his pessimism ("men generally determine everything by their pleasure” and “very few…live according to the laws of reason"). In the spirit of the Enlightenment, he thinks "free actions" are those that follow the dictates of "reason." Spinoza's world is a giant mathematical clock, ticking away with perfect precision--everything has already happened--and God is the mathematical principle at the center, churning events forward unconsciously.
His definition of love is very simple: “Love is joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause…some authors, who define love to be the will of the lover to unite himself to the beloved object, expressing not the essence of love but one of its properties..." So is hate: "to hate a person is to imagine him as a cause of sorrow." But our imagination can control our passions. If we imagine that people are not a cause of our sorrow, we will stop hating them:
"Hatred which is altogether overcome by love passes into love, and the love is therefore greater than if hatred had not preceded it...for if we begin to love a thing which we hated, or upon which we were in the habit of looking with sorrow, we shall rejoice for the very resaon that we love, and to this joy which love involves a new joy is added, which springs from the fact that the effort to remove the sorrow which hatred involves is so much assisted..."
Notice the parellel with MLK, who said that when we "conquer" our enemies with love, we win a "double victory."
The Golden Rule is a rule of reason: “hatred is to be overcome by love, and…every one who is guided by reason desires for others the good which he seeks for himself.” The perfect society (MLK called the "blessed community" I think) is also based on rational principles: “Above all things is it profitable to men to form communities and to unite themselves to one another by bonds which may make all of them as one man: and absolutely, it is profitable for them to do whatever may tend to strengthen their friendships.” But, as Aristotle said, this is hard—“very few…live according to the laws of reason.”
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter
Love Part 13: Chaucer
Love Part 14: Hobbes
Love Part 15: Machiavelli
Love Part 16: Montaigne
Love Part 17: Bacon
Looking for Spinoza
I was turned on to the history of the papacy through my college art history classes. It is simply impossible to separate the stories of some of the great European artists from the happenings of their contemporary leaders of the Catholic Church. When I heard about John Julius Norwich’s new book, Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy, I immediately put a hold on it. Norwich gives us a chronological history of the popes (and antipopes) throughout the two thousand year history of the church, detailing many of their endeavors and challenges such as struggles with secular rulers, church reforms, family scandals, monumental building projects, and much more. The earliest popes, of whom there remains little information, have rather short sections dedicated to them while some of the most influential popes receive much greater discussion.
When I think about Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II, I have a hard time imagining them leading armies of soldiers in order to conquest new regions of Italy as Pope Julius II did, or holding romping parties at the Vatican as Pope Alexander VI did for his daughter Lucrezia. (Wait, did you catch that…daughter of a pope…that’s not supposed to happen! For another interesting read though, take a look at Lucrezia Borgia’s biography.) These two late 15th to early 16th century popes fall in Norwich’s chapter titled The Monsters. What is evident from the book, though, is that the number of popes who took on this position in hopes of genuinely spreading the Word of Christ and making the world a better place, far outnumbers those who saw it as simply a position of wealth and power. But this task is not a simple one and the political upheaval that the popes were often involved in could be debilitating.
I appreciate Norwich’s work for its broad coverage of people and events. In understanding the evolution of the papacy and how it has become what it is today we must first recognize the influence of people outside of Rome such as the emperors of the Byzantine Empire and the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as the political climate of places such as 14th century Avignon. Norwich does not limit his discussion to just those who have been elected to the papacy but also grants discussion to the number of antipopes who have tried to get their hands on the papal tiara over the years and the myth that there was once a female pope named Joan. Pope Joan, myth tells us, disguised herself as a man and made an illustrious career for herself in Rome before being unanimously voted pope. Her disguise was apparently given away when she gave birth to a child one day when mounting a horse for a papal procession. An interesting discussion, it seems unlikely that Pope Joan ever truly existed. What seems even more unlikely, though, is that she could have given birth to a child while mounting a horse!
All in all, this is a very interesting book. You can read just the chapters you find most interesting, or you can read the book in its entirety. The stories of these men (and possibly one woman!) will shed new light on this illustrious position that you are sure to find captivating.
Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy
I’ve read so many authors’ accounts of their unusual careers. It’s interesting to learn about life as a…”fill-in-the-blank,” which is often a job I never imagined holding, but experience it vicariously through the writer’s words. One such book is Hack: How I Stopped Worrying about What to do with my Life and Started Driving a Yellow Cab, by Melissa Plaut.
Melissa Plaut has a great story-telling style. I learned a lot, not only about what big city taxi drivers experience, but also about life as a female cabbie in a very male-dominated field. She points out that most people who ride in cabs do not consider what their driver’s job is like, and that in fact, often the driver is treated as invisible or simply unimportant. To illustrate this sense of invisibility, consider the customer that runs a ‘delivery service,’ selling cocaine all over the city, using taxis as his main form of transportation. The cabdriver risks legal trouble for the illegal substance in her vehicle. The dealer risks the cabbie witnessing the deals and possibly identifying him. But the deal goes on, as if the driver never saw it.
Plaut interweaves factual information, such as the health dangers hacks face--imagine what repeated 12-hour shifts can do to your kidney health, when you sit so long with few safe opportunities to use the bathroom--and the legal requirements restricting NYC drivers, with stories of what she and her fellow cabbies experienced out on the road.
It was a fascinating read, and I hope Plaut will write more.
Hack : how I stopped worrying about what to do with my life and started driving a yellow cab
I have been known to make fun of my lawyer friends for reading books about lawyers, so I felt a little self-conscious when I started to read Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. Avi Steinberg’s account of working in a Boston prison library alternates between thoughtful explorations of prisoners’ lives and prison culture and laugh out loud stories involving people he encounters; both guards and inmates.
He starts teaching writing classes in the prison and has one class of women who want to see pictures of the authors before deciding whether they will read her/his book. He decides to incorporate this into his class, passing around a picture and having them write down their impressions of the author and then write down their vote. They like Toni Morrison, think Federico Garcia Lorca is trouble, sense that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a liar, and one woman votes, “Hellzz ya!!,” for Walt Whitman.
Stories like this and accounts of an inmate with a plan to become a TV chef, a pimp writing a memoir, and the time, mid-mugging, Avi and mugger recognize each other makes for a great read.
Running the Books