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Staff Picks: Books

Hidden Figures

If you liked Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars or We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, place a hold on the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book is already being adapted for the big screen, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.

The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright

With 446 pages printed on high-quality paper, this 2016 book is a prime example of the proverbial hefty tome, which can be perceived as a metaphor for its great content. This book is put forward as being the first one devoted to exploring Frank Lloyd Wright's designs for remaking the modern city. Contrary to most public opinion, mine included, Wright was not an architect of buildings only. Rather, he spent considerable time producing designs of what the surroundings of the buildings should look like. Filled with maps, photographs, plans, and drawings, this book is divided into three sections: 1) Suburbs in the Grid: The New Streetcar City, 2) The City in Question at the Dawn of the Automobile Age, and 3) New Visions for the City Center: Urbanism under the Hegemony of the Automobile. Anyone interested in American urban history in general or Wright's work in particular will enjoy this significant publication.

One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

 In 1980, the Chinese Government enacted a one child policy, mandating that each family could only have one child in hopes of curbing the rapid population growth of the country. This controversial policy was put into place to avoid facing another disaster like the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-1961 that killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people

However, there were unintended consequences. At the beginning of this year the one child policy was lifted, but millions of families are still have to live with the unique challenges it caused, such as the gender imbalance caused by widespread infanticide, and millions of unauthorized second children who live unacknowledged by the state, unable to attend school, or even get a library card.

In OneChild: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, Mei Fong explores the aftermath of this policy through well researched analysis, and by following families to capture the repercussions through a more personal lens. This book is a really fascinating, eye-opening read. I definitely recommend it. 

Required Reading

Toni Morrison said it best: this book is required reading.

In college I'll never forget reading one of the greatest works of African American literature ever to be put on paper: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. For a white person first understanding what it's like to be black in America, this was a powerful experience for me. I was finding my way into an empathetic and complex understanding of the greatest tragedies in America. I distinctly remember the end of the book (or was it the beginning?): the narrator sitting in a basement room, with many lights, and books, and jazz and whiskey, plotting his reemergence into the great white world.

Now, many books and years later, Between the World and Me reawakens me. This book had the same effect on me as Invisible Man and There Eyes Were Watching God and The New Jim Crow, probably greater. The weight of the words and sentences has a physical effect on the body, a sad truth that slowly settles and creeps in. It's personal. He makes it personal. Every single word and sentence of this little book was chosen carefully for maximum effect and truth.

Another fascinating theme of this book is its atheistic, materialistic, physical outlook on the issue of racism in America. He says it as plain and real and physical as possible, and he says it many times: racism is the destruction of the black body.

While you wait for The Underground Railroad...

Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, The Underground Railroad, was slated to be published next month. But yesterday, in a surprise announcement, Oprah Winfrey named the novel her latest book club selection and the book is actually available for purchase now.

KPL has the book on-order and you can place a hold using the online catalog. While you wait for your copy to become available, check out some of the following titles; some are new, some older, and some are previous Oprah picks:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Grace by Natashia Deon
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
The Coming by Daniel Black
Beloved by Toni Morrison



After hearing Barry Yourgrau interviewed on NPR Weekend Edition, I was drawn to read Mess: One Man's Struggle to clean up his House and his Act. 

Yourgrau’s girlfriend delivered an ultimatum. Basically it was: clean this place (and your life) up, or we are over! Yourgrau loves his girlfriend, and he wanted the relationship, so he had to figure out how to clean up his mess. He began to research, interviewing many people and reading quite a lot, seeking to understand why people clutter and hoard and how they overcome that issue, if/when they do.

I found most of the book fascinating, though I bristled with discomfort reading the author’s description of a Clutterers Anonymous meeting (p. 43.) It seemed he attended as a voyeur, an ‘objective’ researcher, instead of honestly owning his own issues. I found it unethical that he shared the details of that meeting in his book. Many anonymous 12-Step groups say: “What you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.” Yourgrau didn’t give real names to any of the speakers, but he shared enough details that if one of those people should read his book, I’d think they would recognize themselves. Not cool, when you’re attending an anonymous meeting! His writing displayed a condescending attitude toward the other people at the meeting. I sensed he was hiding from his feelings about himself and his own clutter by judging the other people around the table.

That said, that experience appears fairly early in the book. Yourgrau’s attitude toward other clutterers seemed to soften as his book progressed, as he learned more about why people clutter and hoard, and as he understood and accepted more about his own issues with said behavior. Ultimately, it was very interesting how the author shared of his personal story/experience, wove it into what he learned about cluttering and hoarding, then would weave what he learned back into his own understanding of himself. All told, I liked the book and I liked Yourgrau.

It’s a shame he didn’t include a bibliography, because the book is packed with references.

A John Berry Meachum Story

This fictional children’s story was inspired by a real event. In Missouri in 1847 a law was passed that prohibited the education of Blacks, slaves or free. This law was passed by the General Assembly of the State of Missouri and it stated that: “No person shall keep a school for the instructions of negroes or mulattoes, reading or writing in this state.”

A man named John Berry Meachum lived from 1789-1854. He had been born a slave and worked to earn enough money to buy his freedom. In 1826 he became a minister of the first African American Baptist Church in Missouri. Although, educating blacks was against the law it was very important to Meachem. Being a very resourceful and creative person he worked to find ways to defy the unjust law that stated black people could not be educated within the state. He built a steamboat and used it in the middle of the Mississippi River as a school for Blacks.

That’s where the idea for this great story, Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, came from.

Rise of the Rocket Girls

We often think of the women astronauts as breaking gender barriers, but a whole generation of women came before them in the early days of the space program.

Rise of the Rocket Girls follows an elite group of women in the 1940’s and 50’s who broke gender and scientific barriers in the early days of rocket design and helped lay the groundwork for our space program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Interestingly, they were referred to as computers because they performed the math computations that determined speed, trajectory, combustion, and other factors for rocket and propellant development. These women computed thus they were labeled computers.

This book is very readable. Interspersed with their space work, are stories of their challenges of balancing home and family with a career, their struggles in a male-dominated workplace, and their pride in their role in launching American into space.

The Poisoning of Michigan

The environmental history of Michigan in the twentieth century (and beyond) has been one characterized by intermittent disasters with wide-ranging implications for the health and well-being of its citizens. One need only examine the Environmental Protection Agency’s maps of Superfund sites (specially-designated toxic waste remediation locations) in Michigan to better understand the current scope of the problems.

We have seen recent examples play out over the last year including the Flint water crisis and the discovery of water contamination stemming from a decommissioned Air Force Base in Oscoda. Citizens of Kalamazoo will be well-aware of the Allied Paper Mill / Portage Creek / Kalamazoo River Superfund PCB remediation process that has dominated the environmental consciousness of Kalamazoo and Allegan counties since the early 1990s - not to mention the subsequent Enbridge oil spill.

As alarming as these scenarios have been, the effects and general contamination produced by each could be described as relatively localized, at least in comparison to a 1973 disaster which resulted in the poisoning of the general population (approximately 9 million individuals) of Michigan through compromised dairy products. This is the subject of The Poisoning of Michigan by Joyce Egginton.

Egginton begins by summarizing the broad strokes of the accident, which began at the Michigan Chemical Corporation where a variety of industrial chemicals were produced. Among these were Nutrimaster, an additive for livestock feed which was shown to increase milk production in dairy cows and have other beneficial effects, and Firemaster, a polybrominated biphenyl (a type of chemical very similar to PCBs) that was being used at the time as a top-notch industrial fire-retardant. The chemicals were nearly indistinguishable to the naked eye, and a paper shortage had led to some extremely questionable techniques being implemented to label the 50-pound brown paper bags in which both Nutrimaster and Firemaster were shipped.

The outcome of this unconscionable confluence of circumstances was that in the Spring of 1973 a truck driver delivered several thousand pounds of Firemaster to the largest agricultural feed plant in Michigan where it was unknowingly combined with livestock feed, dispersed to more than 5,000 farms all over the state and fed to a variety of farm animals for nearly a year before being positively identified.

Egginton goes on to discuss in great detail the efforts of a handful of individuals, including a dairy farmer with a chemistry degree, who worked to pinpoint the cause of what followed: cows lost weight precipitously, milk production plummeted, chickens were born with tumors, animals in general refused to eat and perished. Similar outcomes awaited humans who consumed the products produced by those animals to the degree that a measurable decline in the athletic prowess of Michigan sports teams was noted during the years of peak contamination. All of this took place within an atmosphere which Egginton describes as one characterized by bureaucratic denial, industrial indifference, and the isolation of the afflicted.

Even when viewed alongside such well-known environmental disasters as Love Canal, which would be brought to light five years later, the degree of contamination stemming from the accident remains unparalleled in the United States. Occasionally the event is revisited by the media, and the ongoing effects are measured and discussed, but proportional to its impact, it seems to have become a little-known chapter in the environmental and agricultural history of Michigan.

Dead Presidents

Dead presidents. That would be all of them except for five. This rather unorthodox and macabre yet sometimes humorous book published in 2016 discusses the circumstances of the presidents' deaths, burials, and legacies. Other than the first chapter, which is about George Washington, author Carlson does not take a chronological approach, but a topical one. Chapter 3 ("The First Patient") is about Garfield, Hoover, and Taylor, and the doctors who kept them alive (and occasionally made them worse). The fifth chapter ("Death Trips") is about the posthumous (yes, that's right) travels of Polk, Monroe, Tyler, and Lincoln. In chapter 8 we read about "Unintended Legacies," the story of how the reputations of Taft, Jackson, and Jefferson have changed over time. For a different way to consider the presidents of the United States, please try this.