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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.

Save the Orangutans

Orangutan Orphanage was written and photographed by Suzi Eszterhas, a wildlife photographer whose work has appeared in numerous periodicals. She is also an advocate for conservation and helps raise money for various wildlife organizations throughout the world.

In this informative, endearing and just plain sweet book, she documents her visit to the Orangutan Foundation International’s Orangutan Care Center, where they actively care for rescued orangutans, most of which are orphaned youngsters.

The Center is located in the jungles of Borneo, Indonesia, just outside the Tanjung Puting National Park. Some three hundred orangutans are cared for by a hundred or so good-hearted, local villagers who are specially trained in orangutan care and development. Taking care of the youngest orphans is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week task, where the caretaker plays the role of surrogate mom. This includes round-the-clock bottle feedings, bath times, playtimes and educational outings to teach their charges about their environment and how to get along with other orangs. After years of effort, and a little luck, many or most of these animals will be released back into the wild to live the life that they were intended to live.

This is a wonderfully appealing visual book for animal lovers, both young and old. Additional information is provided on Doctor Birute Mary Galdikas, founder and president of the Orangutan Foundation International, as well as ecotourism, conservation, and how we can all help orangutans survive.

Check it out! You’ll be glad you did.

Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride

 Summer is the perfect time for light reading, so I have another graphic novel to tell you all about! Lucy Knisley, an artist with a knack for turning her personal experiences into entertaining graphic memoirs, is back with Something New! Literally—that’s the name of the book


Knisley has written about the important role of food in her life, and some of her exciting travel adventures, but this time she’s covering her experiences grappling with the beautiful and incredibly stressful task of getting married. This lovely memoir includes many fun components, such as, a section on to buy, or DIY, how she and her husband met, and wedding traditions from around the world. I’d recommend this to book to anyone, whether they’re married, engaged, or single, because honestly, it’s just fun going on this wedding journey with Lucy Knisley.

Looking for more books by Lucy Knisley? Be sure to check out some of her other titles here. 

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.

When the Science Industry Goes Wrong

We like to think of science as the most objective, most unbiased, most pristine and humble profession; slowly but surely delivery us a progression of facts and knowledge and theories that explain them. Well, yes and no. Unfortunately science is composed of human beings, people and institutions that suffer the same imperfections, motivations, and errors of judgment. And greed and money (didn't someone say that money is the root of all evil?).

This book is a hoot. The writer not only exposes bad science and - probably more importantly - bad interpretations of science by the media - but he does so in a hilarious, entertaining way that will make you feel less dumb when you're finished. He clearly explains concepts in statistics that most people don't understand.

Oddly, a met a random library user in the stacks last week. She was looking for this book. I said: I'm reading that book! So I (finally) returned the book and let her have it. Enjoy random reader!

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.

Writing My Wrongs

After having the opportunity to see Shaka Senghor at Bookbug earlier this spring, I immediately checked out a copy of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison and quickly became engrossed in this young author’s fascinating and inspiring story. In alternating chapters that move between the period leading up to his incarceration at age 19, and the period encompassing his 19-year imprisonment, Senghor presents a comprehensive account of how, despite all the cards presumably stacked against him as an African American boy growing up in Detroit, he was able to rise above his mistakes. He now travels the country as a lecturer on criminal justice reform, and is a living example of the benefits of journalling, reading, and self-exploration that resulted in his ultimate release, after a sentence that included a total of seven years in solitary confinement. And although those particular details are not for the faint of heart, Senghor’s story is one of hope, forgiveness, and redemption.