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Staff Picks: Books

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

Vintage Toys

I love attending the Circus Maximus Antique Toy Show every May and November at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center. It's such a festive gathering, and the architects and contractors certainly did a nice job on the new and renovated buildings there. Looking at this book isn't quite as good as being at the show, but there are compensating factors, such as being able to read the histories of many toys I played with as a child. Arranged by type of toy rather than chronologically, the author provides two-page narratives with photographs of toys from the 1940s to the 1990s. Here are Play-Doh, Tonka Trucks, Rubik's Cube, Frisbee, Etch-A-Sketch, and Magic 8-Ball, along with many others. I especially enjoyed being reminded of the Vac-U-Form, since my cousin John in Grand Rapids had one. I can still remember how the plastic smelled when we heated it up!

Book

Toy time! : from hula hoops to He-Man to Hungry Hungry Hippos : a look back at the most- beloved toys of decades past
9780385349123

A “Get the Facts” Story!

I appreciate that Tonya Bolden took on the awesome responsibility of researching this story. It is an amazing story with a wellspring of information.

Sarah Rector was a Creek Freedman born in Indian Territory in 1902. Her grandparents had been slaves to Creek Indians and her grandfather was among the Blacks in the Company D that joined the pro-union First Indian Home Guard which was formed to fight against the confederate army.

The story that Tonya Bolden tells is about Sarah receiving an allotment of land as a child and then, as fortune has it, after her father had been struggling to pay the taxes and would have given the land away he leases it to Devonian Oil Company and oil is struck big time. Sarah becomes the richest black girl in America!

And although, oil gushes from the wells on her land, that is not the crux of Sarah’s story. Her story is what happens after she becomes the richest child of the “colored” race. Besides a new house and a car, wealth brings newspapers articles, marriage proposals, half truths, lies, assumptions, mistrust and accusations to and about Sarah’s family.

Read this very interesting, troublesome and yet comforting story to see why Tony Bolden titled it Searching for Sarah Rector: the richest black girl in America. It will yank at your heart strings and send you tumbling in so many different directions that you will want to know more. I hope that I learn from the example that Miss Bolden set by telling both sides and explaining the half truths of this intriguing story.

Book

Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America
9781419708466

Are Geniuses Made or Born?

Was Einstein one-of-a-kind? Was he original, special, unique—so unique that nobody else could have possibly come up with the theory of relativity? There will never be another Einstein. Or, was he made, a product of the time, a small part in a larger collaborative scientific environment—at the right place at the right time? There are many Einstein’s.

Of course the answer is probably in the middle, and we sometimes forget that there are many other geniuses in history and alive today. (Good Will Hunting is a great movie on the subject). Einstein does get a “special” place, “relatively” speaking; we give him more “space” and more “time” than any other genius (puns intended)—perhaps deservingly so. Look up genius in the dictionary, you see Einstein’s silly little wise grin.

The author of this book thinks that, on the whole, genius is a product of a particular culture and that major scientific advances could have been made by many different people at any given time. Nobody is that special. Science is collaborative. Einstein disagrees: “Einstein believed that ‘great men’ shaped history and that advances in the arts, in the humanities, and in science were due to the contributions of outstanding individuals who labored in the solitude of the creative process” (27). Isaac Newton particularly comes to mind here. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, a contemporary of Einstein, stressed the collective nature of science a little more.

To become an Einstein, I believe many stars must align. First, geniuses really do exist, they are different; they have an Intel Quad-Core processor, we have an abacus. My mom said life’s not fair and she’s right. Second, education and upbringing. If the flower isn’t watered, if the fire isn’t kindled, if the…you get it. Einstein was well read and widely read. “I am really more of a philosopher than a physicists,” he once said. The fact that he read Kant’s ideas on space and time has a lot to do with how he developed his own ideas. Third, a thriving culture of learning is required, especially for science types. Also, it’s very important to remember that you don’t have to be a “genius” be do great things (indeed, Einstein considered ‘moral geniuses’ like Jesus and Gandhi).

What do you think?

book

Einstein and oppenheimer
9780674028289

Another Look Back at the 1960s

There are many recent books about various aspects of the 1960s – 50 years ago. I’m drawn to these books as the time when I grew up but was not old enough to fully understand and appreciate the significance of many events.

I grew up in Pennsylvania and attended the NY World’s Fair in the summers of 1964 and 65. I remember many of the major exhibits. Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America tells the back story of the politics of the fair told against the times: the Kennedy assassination, the US and the Soviet Union, Malcolm X and racial issues, color TV, the Ford Mustang, Disney World, the Beatles.

This is a history of the mid 1960s with the World’s Fair as a reflection of the times. It is fascinating reading if you attended the fair or not.

Book

Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America
9780762780358

The Mad Potter

The arresting photo on the cover of this book caught my eye and I was quickly drawn into the quirky world of George Ohs, who called himself The Mad Potter.

Born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1871, George Ohs was a largely self-taught potter, making items like no one had ever seen before. It wasn’t until long after his death that the art world came to appreciate what he called his “mud babies.”

The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius tells his fascinating story and is illustrated with intriguing historic photographs.

Book

The Mad Potter
9781596438101