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Staff Picks: Books

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.

King John: Treachery and Tyranny in Medieval England

At some point in a semi-recent reading of Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses, it occurred to me that almost everything I knew about King John of England had been gathered from films, from the timeless The Lion in Winter to the marginally enjoyable Ridley Scott adaptation of Robin Hood. Naturally, I was pleased when I saw Marc Morris’ recent biography of King John appear on our shelves. Morris, an historian who studied and taught history at the Universities of London and Oxford, is the author of the very well-received A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain and Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England.

The broad strokes of John’s life are fairly well-known to many: he took part in a wide variety of power struggles within his immediate family, earning himself a reputation as an attempted usurper, orchestrated the murder of his nephew and rival, quarreled with the Pope, was excommunicated from the Church, lost all his inherited lands in continental Europe, heavily taxed his barons resulting in his forced signing of the Magna Carta, and upon his death, left England in a state of upheaval. Certainly, the details of such a life warrant closer examination and King John’s life has been the subject of numerous efforts by historians, many of whom see in him an ambitious and able-bodied administrator whose reputation has been tarnished by both his contemporary chroniclers and those who have come since.

Morris’s assessment of the life and legacy of King John is less glowing, however. He describes him as deficient in matters of both military and political, and states, “Besides his reputation for treachery, John lacked boldness.” Additionally, he makes it plain that John seemed to have a tendency towards cruelty and argues that authors of primary sources concerning his life who claimed as much certainly had plenty of source material from which to draw their criticisms.

In addition to what I would consider a fair treatment of King John, I was also pleased to find thought-provoking depictions of his family, friends, and rivals. Even among such colorful characters as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and Richard the Lionheart, the one who stood out the most in my mind was Philip II, called Philip Augustus, of France. The delicate relationship between the two monarchs, frequently cooperative, but ultimately antagonistic, constituted a turning point in European geopolitics that I’m sure I had never properly appreciated before and is handled with great precision here.

Symphony for the City of the Dead

Dmitri Shostakovich was a quiet man, nervous and introverted. He disliked the attention that his music granted him. Considering he lived through the Great Terror of Stalin's regime, it makes perfect sense he would want to be as inconspicuous as a composer could be. As Operation Barbarossa brings the new threat of Hitler's army bearing down on them, the people of Leningrad are faced with the struggle, not merely to survive, but to maintain their humanity. During a siege that lasted almost 900 days, poetry and music manage to give the people hope, and it's Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony that shines brightest in the city darkened by war. I highly recommend listening to his symphonies as you read this book. It adds yet another powerful dimension to an already compelling true story.

Calling all Fashionistas!

 Let’s begin with a simple truth. I love fashion. I also love to shop; but like so many other fashionistas, I never gave any thought to where my clothes are coming from before they arrive on the hangers at the mall, or where they go long after they’ve been donated to the Goodwill. It’s no exaggeration to say the book Overdressed by Elizabeth L Cline completely changed the way I think about fashion. 


Overdressed shines a light on the recent phenomenon of “fast fashion,” a term coined to describe the low quality, cheaply priced trendy clothing stores like Forever 21 that have become such a large part of the landscape in the shopping world. In her book Cline examines why this shift has occurred while going further to explore the consequences playing out on a global scale.

This book is a fascinating critique of the fashion world, and I heartily recommend it to all of the fashionistas out there.  Looking for more sordid details on the unsustainable business practices of the fashion industry? Be sure to check out Magnifeco by Kate Black.

No Ordinary Sound

I highly recommend No Ordinary Sound by Denise Lewis Patrick.  The story introduces Melody Ellison, the latest addition to the American Girl historical dolls line BeForever.  Reading it transported me back to my childhood growing up in Detroit during the 1960s.  It is a wonderful read and I was so impressed with all the authentic references to the city and the time period.

Melody is a talented 9-year-old who loves to sing.  Her story unfolds as she tries to balance her youthful dreams with the harsh realities of growing up during the Civil Rights Era.  After Melody is chosen to sing a solo at her church recital, she experiences set-backs at home, in her community, and in her country.

The author has written a true classic here.  I can't wait for the Melody Ellison doll to debut this summer.  I just might find myself standing in line at a mall somewhere.  

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

 I’ve read many novels about World War II, but A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, is the first I can recall with a Japanese setting to the Nagasaki bombing.

Amaterasu Takahaski, now living in Philadelphia, is skeptical when a badly scarred man, claiming to be her grandson, appears at her door. Her grandson and her daughter perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki, but this man carries a collection of sealed private letters that open long-buried family secrets that give her pause.

This is a heart-wrenching story of love and regret, ultimately healing and hope. I’ve been recommending this to my reader-friends and expect it will be one of my favorites of the year.

Prisoners of Geography

This 2015 book, subtitled Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World, is praised by Newsweek as a work that 'shows how geography shapes not just history but destiny.' The ten maps and the discussion of each conveniently take up ten chapters: Russia, China, United States, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and The Arctic. The discipline of geopolitics gets a very good airing here, with answers by British author Tim Marshall to such questions as: 1) Why will America never be invaded?, 2) What does it mean that Russia must have a navy, but also has frozen ports six months out of the year?, 3) How does this affect Putin's treatment of the Ukraine?, 4) How is China's future constrained by geography?, 5) Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy?, and 6) Why will Europe never be united? The physical aspects of the world's nations are a major factor in determining the conduct of international relations even in this modern age. Historical yet current, this book is a rich source for understanding the world scene in the 21st century and the background to its development.

Lose Yourself In a Book

As I get older, I retain less and less of what I read. Sometimes I find it hard to even recall storylines or important parts of books from things I’m currently reading when people ask me. However, Rebecca Solnit, a writer I discovered about three years ago, has related stories and created images that have stuck in my mind. Not all she has to say resonates with me, but there has always been something that catches my imagination and carves its message into my not so malleable memory.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her meditation on different ways of being lost or losing ourselves, I was moved by her description of 16th century Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca’s transformation as he gets lost in Florida and over a decade later arrives in New Mexico and finally meets up with other Spaniards, only to find he has very little in common with them anymore or with who he was ten years before. 

Pick up a Rebecca Solnit book and get lost in it. Somewhere in there you will find a treasure.