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Staff Picks: Books

Do you say soda or pop?

Speaking American got us all talking at Washington Square. How do you say “crayon” or “coupon” or “grocery store”? Do you say pop or soda, scratch paper or scrap paper, takeout or carry-out, drinking fountain or water fountain or bubbler? It probably depends on where you are from in the U.S.

We have had so much fun looking at the maps of where words are used and reading the short entries on the idiosyncracies of certain states or even cities. My wife, from Kansas, hates that I say, “You want to come with?” You can’t end a sentence with a preposition, right? Well, the majority of people in Minnesota and Chicago do. Bingo, I’m from Chicago. My colleagues tested me by asking what I called shoes that you wear for sports. Gym shoes, of course. Well, only in Chicago or Cincinnati. Everyone else says either “tennis shoes” or “sneakers.” 

I was also happy to see crayfish-crawfish-crawdad in there. Throughout our marriage, we have jokingly tried to convince our kids that those crustaceans are called crayfish (Chicago) or crawdad (Kansas). When I showed it to my wife it started the debate again and she said, “They aren’t fish.” Then I said, “Well, they aren’t dads either.” After a second more to think, I said, “Well, at least half of them aren’t.”

Also, now I know why my brother who moved to Connecticut started saying tag sale rather than garage sale. 

You will love looking through this book, especially if you do it with someone else.

Ten Prayers That Changed the World

Subtitled Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History, this is a 2016 book published by the National Geographic Society. In it are stories about ten prayers selected by author Jean-Pierre Isbouts, historian and doctoral professor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. The book is naturally divided into ten chapters which are: Abraham's Plea, Jesus' Prayer to Abba, The Dream of Constantine, The Voices of Joan of Arc, Martin Luther's Hymn, George Washington's Prayer, The Prayer of St. Francis, The Prayer for Bastogne, Gandhi's Prayer for Peace, and Mother Teresa's Daily Prayer. As can be seen, these chapters cover a wide variety of religious persuasions, thought, and practice. Thus this volume can be used as an aid in personal devotion or as a historical study.

The Last Battle

During the last few hours of the last day of World War II, in a remote medieval castle in an otherwise sleepy part of the Austrian countryside, US and German troops joined forces during one of the strangest and least-likely battles of the entire war. The Last Battle is an account of the hours leading up to that battle, when a small unit of defecting German conscripts and a handful of battle-weary US soldiers fought off two hundred Waffen-SS loyalists trying to take control of the Schloss Itter castle and capture the six French VIPs held captive inside. Desperately low on ammunition, and with only a single battle-damaged tank parked on the castle entrance, the US and German troops- along with the support of dozens of concentration camp survivors, Austrian resistance fighters, and the bickering French VIPs themselves- managed to hold off the invading SS troops long enough for reinforcements to arrive. That this book hasn't somehow been turned into a huge-budgeted Hollywood film is almost as astonishing as the story itself.

The Edge of the Empire

By CE 130, the city of Rome was the center of an enormous empire, roughly rectangular in shape, that stretched from the province of Aegyptus (Egypt) at its southeastern corner to Britannia in the northwest. Bronwen Riley chooses CE 130 as the year in which she imagines and constructs a journey “from the heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall” in this wonderfully accessible 2016 offering. In doing so, she draws upon a wide variety of sources ranging from modern scholarship to the immutable contributions of Cassius Dio, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger.

While Egypt was immensely important to Rome, with the Nile River delta serving as the empire’s breadbasket, Britannia was… less so. Considered by cosmopolitan Romans to be the very embodiment of the term ‘provincial’, Britannia had functioned as an Imperial Province since CE 43 when the Emperor Claudius ordered finished the work begun by Julius Caesar almost a century prior. In the 90 years between CE 43 and 130, the Romans successfully secured their claim on Britannia, from the southern coast to the site of the modern village of Bowness-on-Solway, through the liberal application of butchery, diplomacy, and industry.

Unlike the tamer Senatorial Provinces closer to Rome such as Sicilia, Epirus, or even Macedonia, operations in Britannia were overseen by the Roman military. Riley selects for her travel companions the sorts of Romans who might be appointed to such a post. With her are Sextus Julius Severus, a battle-hardened Roman general who took up his governorship there in CE 130 and Minicius Natalis the Younger, the Patrician champion four-horse charioteer of the 227th Olympic Games, who assumed command of the Roman Sixth Legion at Eboracum (York) that same year.

Riley describes in exceptional detail the ins and outs of travelling as a Roman citizen during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, who we’ll recall from our Western Civ. courses as the third of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. How would one arrange for travel from the ports of Ostia to those in Gallia Narbonensis on the far side of the Alps? What should one know of the intricacies of Gallic hospitality on the way to Gesoriacum (Bulogne)? Here’s a travel tip: avoid the ‘pork’ offered by dodgy innkeepers if you harbor any qualms regarding potential acts of cannibalism.

Along the way, Riley draws attention to the myriad foundations of modern western civilization laid by Roman engineers. Upon arrival in the cities of Britannia, Riley focuses on the ways in which those engineers set to work emulating Roman life on the fringes of the empire. After all, city planning and the provision of civic institutions such as temples, amphitheaters, public baths, and above all, roads, were as important to Romans on the edge of their world as it was to those at its center.

It’s an engaging, immersive work that ultimately has far more in common with a historical monograph than a travel guide or a gazetteer, and in my opinion, comes off as less heavy and more approachable. Anglophiles and Romanophiles in particular will not be disappointed.

Utopia Is Creepy

Anyone familiar with his previous books, most notably The Shallows or The Glass Cage, knows Nicholas Carr as one of our greatest critical thinkers when it comes to technologies impact on society. Carr’s latest title, Utopia Is Creepy and other provocations, collects a decade’s worth of posts from his blog, along with several essays that focus squarely on undermining Silicon Valley’s Pollyannaish insistence that technology and the web can solve any problem facing society and will make EVERYTHING better. But Carr is far from a technophobic luddite, he clearly deeply understands the technology he skewers, but he also understands technologies limits. No matter where you land on the techy to technophobic scale, Carr’s stinging wit and casual style are well worth checking out.

Strangers Drowning

I just finished my favorite book of the year, Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar. It didn’t make it on to my best of list because I turned that in before I read this.

MacFarquhar tells us about the lives of several “do-gooders” who do things like live on very little of their income and give the rest away, start a leprosy colony in India, and adopt 20 children; many with special needs. She tells their stories with no analysis or judgments. She doesn’t need to. The stories are so incredible you cannot help but wonder about so many things.

Then there are chapters in between the stories that look at society’s and the psychiatric profession’s reaction to do-gooders. If nothing else, they can make us feel uncomfortable as we compare our lives to theirs. However, she also details our suspicions about them and explanations of their behavior that often make them out to be mentally ill or in actuality, selfish.

I don’t know if this was the author’s desired outcome, but the juxtaposition of the two things made me think how meaningless or irrelevant all the criticisms were; how petty the suspicions.
I could only be left to admire these people and their efforts and feel for them as they struggled in these situations and themselves questioned what they were doing.

Nikki Giovanni is still the bomb!

She’s been around a long time. She’s done her time and speaks her mind. I heard her speak last spring and now whenever I read her works I hear her voice while reading it. I can picture her talking about Amos ‘n’ Andy and why the show was popular as well as important to Black families. In her book Chasing Utopia I can hear her reaffirming my feelings about how fantastic Nina Simone was. Ms. Giovanni talks about meeting Nina Simone in a bookstore in Harlem and that even though she was famous she (Ms. Giovanni) invited her to a party. Her mother told her Nina Simone is not coming to your party and Nina Simone came.  

The best thing about poetry is that you can do a hit and run. You can touch on a topic and move on to hit on another one and Nikki Giovanni does that well. In her poem Werewolf Avoidance, she suggests “that our poems should be strong in our emotions and our words that might make us difficult to live with”. She’s not talking "namby-pamby poetry" when she talks about Sarah Palin in her poem, The Lone Ranger Rides the Lonesome Trail Again. Sometimes she's spicy, sometimes she's sweet. Nikki Giovanni does it well. 

Anything but ordinary Addie: the true story of Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic

This winter KPL has invited everyone to take part in a Winter Reading Challenge, and I hope everyone will!  I needed a book for the second reading activity:  Read about a topic you don't know much about.  I thought I knew some things about magicians and how they do tricks, but I realized how little I knew about the history of magicians when I came across Anything but ordinary Addie: the true story of Adelaide Herrmann, the Queen of Magic.  This new biography picture book for children is FANTASTIC!  It is about the life of Adelaide Herrmann who was a "shocking" and "dazzling" magician during a time when being a female magician was unheard of.

I am always excited to see little known facts about women's contributions to history come to light, especially in a children's book.  As a young girl, Adelaide knew she wanted to be different and she wanted to do things not expected of a young girl growing up during the Victorian era.  What better way to shock society than to grow up and become a magician, get shot out of a cannon, be set on fire, or have your head cut off.  The full color illustrations in this book are vibrant and powerful; they bring the pages to life.  The author Mara Rockliff has written a simple, easy flowing story that will engage anyone reading it.  I recommend this as a must read for elementary school kids and preschoolers will definitely enjoy the wonderful illustrations.

The Sultan and the Queen

In 1570, Queen Elizabeth I of England was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Pius V. He named her a heretic, a pretender to the throne of England, and released from their allegiance all her subjects, lest they too face excommunication. Such was the attitude of Catholic Europe towards Elizabeth who, following the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary I, reinstituted the Church of England’s independence from papal authority.

While the kingdoms and principalities of Europe increasingly began to take sides amidst the great wars between Catholics and Protestants which dominated the geopolitics of that region between the sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, England’s geography and antagonistic relationship with Catholic maritime powers, namely Spain, meant allies and trading partners were few and far between. 

When a letter was delivered to Queen Elizabeth in 1579, curiously wrapped in a satin bag and fastened with a silver capsule, it signaled the onset of an unlikely and unprecedented correspondence. For the first time ever, a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had written to an English monarch. In her search for friendly trading ports, Elizabeth dispatched envoys and merchants to the Mediterranean in the hopes of establishing prosperous relations with the cities of North Africa, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Word of the arrival of Englishmen in ports under his control had prompted the young Sultan Murad III to write to Elizabeth inviting her countrymen to establish friendly trading relations, provided she would acknowledge his greatness and function as his subject.

With the entire expanse of Catholic Europe acting as a buffer state and certain economic crisis looming, Elizabeth found these terms agreeable enough. The correspondence between these two rulers, and the ensuing cross-cultural transference of goods and ideas is the subject of Jerry Brotton’s The Sultan and the Queen. A professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, Brotton uses this relationship as a wonderfully unique lens with which to view Elizabethan England – no small task, given the sheer volume of available scholarship concerning that time and place.

The result is a work which provides a new angle of insight into the attitudes, alliances, and indeed even popular culture of Elizabeth’s England. Brotton draws significantly on the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe as supporting primary sources to explain how English disposition towards the Ottomans and the tenants of Islam metamorphosed during this era. Armed with this context, it becomes impossible to engage with works such as Othello in the same way again. If ‘untold’ historical narratives are your thing, I promise you will enjoy this offering thoroughly.

Level Up Your Classroom

Many people understand how compelling games can be – just look at how much time people spend playing games in all their formats! What if the qualities that motivate people to come back again and again to the games they love could be utilized to maximize motivation to construct learning? Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, by Jonathan Cassie, answers these questions:
• What happens to student learning when it is gamified?
• Why would I want to gamify instruction for my students?
• How do I do this?
While game-based learning, using specific games to help kids learn, can be useful, this book is not only about that. Rather, the big idea here is to identify and learn to utilize the attributes that make games so compelling in order to facilitate learning. Cassie posits that understanding and recognizing the fundamental properties of games allow teachers to use those properties to facilitate learning.
Here is an accessible and practical book with many access points for gamifying your classroom. If you are a game fanatic but don’t know how to incorporate gamification into teaching (or parenting) this is the book for you. If you don’t identify as a gamer yet you recognize there might be some value in gameplay for your students, this book could be... yep, you guessed it, a game-changer.