A History of Things

Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new.  Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.

Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
concreteplanetWe take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.

Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
airstreamThis book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.

cellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.

Digital Retrodigitalretro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.

theyugoThe Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.

jetpackdreamsJetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.

So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.

Command and Control

commandandcontrolIs it possible to be nostalgic about the threat of global thermonuclear war? I found myself asking that rather odd question recently as I read Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. From the cover art to the alphabet soup of cold war acronyms (NORAD, SIOP, SAC, and who could forget MAD) I found Schlosser’s tome triggering memories that were an odd mix of fondness coupled with dread: classmates and adults freaking out over the TV movie The Day After, Sting’s concern about the Russians fondness for their children, basking in the electronic glow of irradiated cities while playing Missile Command at the video arcade.

As I kept reading, however, my feelings of nostalgia soon gave way to an amazement at how little I knew about the most destructive weapons ever created and the protocols, or lack thereof, in place to ensure that they only go off when they are supposed to. While Command and Control definitely contains a lot of fascinating Cold War history and strategy, its main focus is on how the U.S. government has attempted to safely maintain the many nuclear weapons on our soil and throughout the world since their creation in 1945. When you consider that just one ‘accident’ could wipe out a city, it gives you pause. Let’s just say that the facts are not conducive to worry-free days and restful sleep.

To increase the tension, Schlosser intertwines his general history of the safety of nuclear weapons with the story of a specific incident: the ominous sounding ‘Damascus Accident.’  On September 18th, 1980, during a routine maintenance check of a Titan II missile silo in rural Arkansas, a seemingly mundane thing happened: a socket from a socket wrench came loose. Unfortunately this socket careened off the missile and created a hole that began spewing out rocket fuel. The thought of the unfortunate maintenance worker who dropped the socket says it all: ‘Oh man, this is not good.’ The author then provides a minute by minute tension-filled account of events that is layered throughout the book. It is a clever writing device that not only keeps you reading, but puts a human face to the policy makers’ use of terms such as ‘acceptable risk.’

100sunsAnother hallmark of this work is the author’s balanced approach to the topic. It would have been easy, given the subject matter, to depict many of the historical characters as two-dimensional heroes or villains. Instead the author presents fully fleshed out individuals with complex motivations. Good examples of this are the many scientists and administrators who developed the atomic bomb during World War II.  As a scientific achievement, the creation of the atom bomb was truly amazing and Schlosser doesn’t shy away from that fact. You begin to see the project through the scientists’ eyes as they puzzle and experiment to bring a seemingly impossible thing, the splitting of the atom, to life. Conversely, you also share their horror when they realize the sheer destructive power of their achievement and what it means for the world.

Ultimately, this book is an exploration of a series of questions that should be easy to answer: What is the strategic purpose of possessing nuclear weapons? Are the ones we posses safe? Where are they located? Who actually controls them and what are their targets? Before reading this fascinating work, I would have assumed it was my ignorance and default generational apathy that led me to be clueless. Now I find it hard to disagree with the conclusion of the author that:

Secrecy is essential to the command and control of nuclear weapons. Their technology is the opposite of open-source software. The latest warhead designs can’t be freely shared on the Internet, improved through anonymous collaboration, and productively used without legal constraints. In the years since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the design specifications of American nuclear weapons have been “born secret.” They are not classified by government officials; they’re classified as soon as they exist. And intense secrecy has long surrounded the proposed uses and deployments of nuclear weapons. It is intended to keep valuable information away from America’s enemies. But an absence of public scrutiny has often made nuclear weapons more dangerous and more likely to cause a disaster.

Pleasant dreams.

Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl at the Library!

EganPearl

I hope you know that you’re invited to a free public literary event with Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl on Saturday, April 6th at 7 PM at the Everett Performing Arts Center. This should be a great evening for lovers of both history and literature. Timothy Egan will read from his latest book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, and then will be interviewed by legendary librarian Nancy Pearl, who is herself the author of Book Lust and its sequels and is a regular NPR commentator on books. There will be books and also wine available for purchase.  Sounds perfect!

Timothy Egan writes for the New York Times and we are lucky to have him in our backyard and yes, I do consider Seattle to be Everett’s backyard. In addition to his journalism, he has written a slew of non-fiction books which are mostly set in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s a quick rundown.

indexLet’s go chronologically through Egan’s books and start with The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest.  Atop Mount Rainier, Egan checked the map to see which glacier would best feed his grandfather’s ashes down into streams where the man loved to fish. A minor glacier called Winthrop looked best, and that’s where the ashes went. Egan’s research led to the writings of Theodore Winthrop who spent three months exploring Oregon and Washington in 1853. Egan retraced Winthrop’s route and we get fascinating comparisons between what the two men saw roughly 150 years apart. It is a great travel history of the Pacific Northwest and I highly recommend it as fascinating reading.

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Breaking Blue is the true-crime story of a Sheriff who worked through 54 years of police cover-ups and solved the oldest open murder case in the country. It is the chilling story of the abuses of the Spokane police department during the Great Depression. Egan unravels the story in engrossing detail, illuminating a host of horrible acts committed by the cops in that city, including robbery, murder and extorting sex from Dust Bowl refugees.

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Wild Seattle: A Celebration of the Natural Areas In and Around the City is a celebration of the wild lands, parks, preserves, and wildlife of the greater Seattle area and features more than 130 superb color images by renowned nature photographers. Egan wrote the engaging text for this beautiful coffee table book.

indexLasso the Wind is a look at the eleven states “on the sunset side of the 100th meridian” that Egan regards as the true West. Fishing rod and notebook in hand, he travels by car and foot, horseback and raft, through a region struggling to find its future direction under both the weight of the “Old West” and the commercial threats of the present. He covers the story of what he calls the New West in essays that choose a localized story. The stories are often about a controversy or a change that is happening in the area. Skip around and read an essay or two as time allows and you’ll be rewarded with funny and incisive writing.

indexMy first introduction to Egan’s writing came when I read the popular The Worst Hard Time which chronicles the hardships of those who endured the horrible dust storms of the Great Plains during the depression. Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region as they went from sod huts to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. Read this book to understand the devestation that these massive dust storms had on the high plains.

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We actually listened to The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America while we were driving to Idaho, the site of the largest forest fire in America. It is an outstanding, highly readable history of the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3.2 million acres in and around the Bitterroot National Forest in Idaho and Montana. Egan moves deftly between the immediacy of the fire and the experiences of people caught up in it, and the powerful business and political interests whose actions both contributed to, and were affected by, the disaster. In the end this book serves as a history not only of the biggest U.S. fire of the 20th century, but also as an examination of the national politics of the first dozen years of the century, and of the origins of the U.S. Forest Service.

And now we come to Egan’s most recent book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. This biography of the famous photographer starts in Seattle and follows him through his obsessive quest to document all of the tribes of North America that were still intact. Curtis’ 20 volume The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930. We are all familiar with Curtis’ famous photographs. This book chronicles all of the sacrifices that Curtis made for his obsession. He was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave up his marriage, family and successful career in Seattle to pursue his great project. At once an incredible adventure and a fascinating biographical portrait, Egan’s book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis’ photographs, following him throughout Indian country from desert to rainforest as he struggled to document the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes.

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Even with the backing of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, it took tremendous effort (six years alone to convince the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony). The undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. He would die penniless and unknown in Hollywood just a few years after publishing the last of his twenty volumes. But the charming rogue with the grade-school education had fulfilled his promise—his great adventure succeeded in creating one of America’s most stunning cultural achievements. I downloaded this book from the library and listened to it while painting our basement over the course of a rainy week-end. I always think of Curtis when passing through the basement. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to hang a few (reproduced) Curtis photos there?

I hope to see you April 6th when the Everett Public Library brings this accomplished author to town!

Leslie

Eating Dirt

eatingdirtSilviculture. The word makes me think of mining, or maybe something to do with manufacturing metal. Surprisingly, it refers to the cultivation of forest trees, or as Wikipedia tells us:

Silviculture is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values. The name comes from the Latin silvi- (forest) + culture (as in growing).

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill takes us into the world of the people on the ground floor of silviculture, the ones who re-plant the forests after logging companies cut them down. Their life-style is foreign to most of us, but fascinating.

Perhaps this isn’t the best time of year to talk about a book that details a life of working outdoors in the Pacific Northwest, but since I’m sure you’ll be inside while reading, I’ll go ahead. Gill’s writing is lyrical and not at all dry as dirt. Though Gill does state that dirt tastes like sand mixed with cold butter at one point. The book details a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, with people working outdoors in all but the harshest weather of winter. If you spend much time outdoors here, you will recognize the feeling of water drip, drip, dripping down the back of your neck.

Much like nomadic herdsmen, Gill and her co-workers consider themselves a tribe mostly separated from the rest of society. They are the workers in the background that we don’t even suspect exist, but who are essential to our lifestyles. They allow us to harvest the planet’s natural resources without worrying about replenishment. Yet they are as unsentimental about it as a farmer is about butchering cattle. Their jobs are never going to be mechanized or done by anything other than human hands.

Gill recounts the time spent waiting for the planting season to begin, which we would consider free time but to planters seems just like waiting. Then the planting season begins and it becomes their whole life. With a job that is outdoors, completely isolated (horrors!-even out of cell phone range in an emergency), and seemingly monotonous, your mind is completely free to wander and notice details. The whole world belongs only to you, and you are the only human living in it. The work is endlessly variable in that the terrain and your surroundings are always changing, yet the end product is constant. This job is the very definition of long-term investing, since most of the trees planted by these workers will not be available for harvest until close to the planters’ retirements.

We learn about the history of the logging of our forests, and when the realization hit that it couldn’t go on forever without re-planting. We also learn about the day-to day events that define their characters. One chapter tells of being stationed in a small town where the townspeople give them the stink-eye look of ‘It’s them again!’. As the author describes it:

We look hungrily deranged, like crazy gypsies descended from the mountain to pick through the dumpsters for chicken bones

This book didn’t make me love going out into the rain, but it made me appreciate our environment and the people who work out in it. Thanks to their hard work, hillsides and forest will no longer look like a barren and desolate landscape out of a post-apocalyptic movie (and we won’t, hopefully, have zombies any time soon).

Kathy

EBooks at the Everett Public Library

EBooks are a relatively new thing in the history of written stuff. Sure, there were clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and hand-copied books for eons back in the mists of time, but even mass-produced printed books have been around for nearly 600 years. EBooks are scarcely a zygote.

In spite of this newbie status, the amount of titles available in this infant electronic format is increasing dramatically as the number of e-readers and tablets proliferate. And this trend will continue until the next technology comes along.

I am no Luddite, and in fact have worked on the slightly techy side of computers, but I did not see myself as a potential eBook reader. I like books, holding them, turning pages. Conversely, I don’t particularly enjoy staring at computer screens. But as free eBooks became available in libraries, I was lured by the siren call of near-infinite storage in something the size of a slim paperback. No more vacations with backpacks full of books! No more wondering if the pantry should be filled with food or overflowing stacks of books!

Initially, I feared that the library would carry only best-seller eBooks rather than titles suited to my quirky tastes. However, after thoroughly exploring the catalog, I can state unequivocally that this is not the case.  Everett Public Library currently has over 3,000 electronic books including fiction in all genres, kid’s books, young-adult, and non-fiction ranging from history to cooking to biographies.  Here are a few of the titles I founds while browsing for eBooks in the EPL catalogue.

 Lady cyclist
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
Historical fiction
Available as an eBook, book, large-print book, and audiodisc
In 1923, two sisters, one devout and the other not-so-much, journey to be missionaries on the ancient Silk Road.

Hedys folly
Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes
Biography, history
Available as an eBook, book, and audiodisc
Yes Virginia, Hedy Lamarr was an inventor who created the technology that became the basis for cell phones, Wi-Fi and other devices commonplace to modern life. This book tells of her adventures with inventing partner George Antheil, an avant-garde composer known to use airplanes and other machinery in his compositions. High on my to-read list.

The dead gentleman 
The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody
Juvenile fiction
Available only as an eBook
A hole through time, zombies, steampunk, a bad guy called the Dead Gentleman, and two kids from different eras attempting to save the world.

 Hawaii
Fodor’s 2012 Hawai’i
Travel guide
Available only as an eBook
 
billy the kid

Billy the Kid and the Vampyres of Vegas: A Lost Story from the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
YA Fiction, short story
Available only as an eBook
Billy the Kid, who is an immortal, and Scathach the Shadow join forces to defeat vampyres who control Las Vegas.

 Mirage
Mirage by Matt Ruff
Fiction
Available as an eBook and a book
Matt Ruff is one of my favorite authors, but I’d be the first to say that he’s not for everyone. His books tend toward the surreal, being full of twists and unlikely situations. Mirage takes the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers and turns it on its head, with Christian fundamentalist terrorists attacking the benevolent Muslim states.

Happy Healthy Monsters 
Happy Healthy Monsters:  Good Night, Tucked In Tight by Naomi Kleinberg
Children’s picture book
Available only as an eBook
Grover and Elmo teach toddlers and their parents the importance of ample sleep.

City of Ember
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Juvenile fiction
Available as an eBook, book, AudioEBook, audiodisc, playaway and DVD

The last refuge for humanity, the city of Ember, seems to be in peril. Lina and her friend Doon try to decipher an ancient message to save the city.

George F  
George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis
Biography, politics
Available as an eBook, book, and AudioEBook
A look at the work of this key figure who battled to help America survive the Cold War.

Richard Scarry
Richard Scarry’s Bedtime Stories by Richard Scarry
Children’s picture book
Available as an eBook and a book

Stay tuned for an informative post on how to check this great stuff out from the library. And don’t forget about our hands on eBook instruction session coming up on Saturday, January 12th.

Ron

It’s the Final Countdown

The Order of DaysSo we’re finally there – the week of the alleged Maya apocalypse. For those of you who have managed to avoid the hype, the world is supposed to end on December 21, 2012. At this point the coverage has become as corny, dramatic, and oddly-addictive as that Europe song – you know the one. Yet like the Europe song, while people may joke about the Maya apocalypse in public, many privately hold some pretty serious views about it. In an excellent interview with NASA astrobiologist David Morrison, listeners of the APM radio show The Story recently heard about the distraught emails that Morrison was receiving by the dozens seeking advice about when the cataclysm would start (not if), and what actions should be taken to minimize the suffering of family and friends.

I take the position that nothing of note will happen on the 21st of December, and I base this on my background in anthropology and Maya studies. Unfortunately there is currently a lot of fear and misinformation being spread about an event that is largely misunderstood, and the consequences are potentially serious. In order to combat this misinformation, it’s important to understand some basic things about Maya calendrics.

Look Close See FarThe ancient Maya were very accomplished astronomers who saw the movement of celestial bodies as supernatural patterns that gave insights into destiny (kind of like modern horoscopes, but much more specific). Through careful study of the movements in the sky, the Maya developed several different kinds of calendars, ranging from a 260-day tzolk’in that was used to name newborns and helped predict the paths their lives would take, to a ‘Long Count’ or b’ak’tun calendar that recorded a time span of about 394 years, to something called a piktun, which measured over 7,800 years (the current piktun doesn’t end until the year 4772).

It’s the Long Count calendar that is causing all the ruckus this month; we are reaching the end of the current cycle, counting down to 13.0.0.0.0 (dates actually get smaller as a cycle progresses), after which the 14th b’ak’tun begins. Cycle is the important word in that sentence. Just as we have days, weeks, months, decades, centuries, and millennia, the Maya  had (have, really – the Maya are still alive and well) k’in, uinal, tun, k’atun, b’ak’tun, piktunand beyond. The ancient Maya placed no special emphasis on the end of the current b’ak’tun, and even created other calendars with dates that go centuries beyond 12/21/12. Amazingly, there is even a unit of time that stretches into the millions of years called the alautun, which lasts roughly 63,081,429 years!

code of kingsSo, if you must plan for anything on the 21st of December, plan on a big ol’ New Years Eve party of the 1999-2000 variety, because we’re just rolling over to the beginning of a new unit of time: 14th b’ak’tun of the Long Count calendar.  Once you’ve recovered sufficiently from your New B’ak’tun Eve (NBE) revelries, you might want to consider coming down to the library to check out some books about the Maya – they were and are a truly fascinating people who contributed much to the world.

Some titles of note:

The Order of the Days by David Stuart is a good place to start if you want to do some pre-NBE reading. Stuart has done a great job of explaining the different theories about December 2012, and then debunking them. Even better, Stuart goes on to talk about why the Maya, stripped of all their new-agey and other-worldly mystique, should be respected as an ancient culture that accomplished much in creative and enduring ways. I also like that Stuart takes the time to talk about all the positive things that the Maya contributed to the world, especially in the areas of agriculture. Did you know that without the Maya we wouldn’t have chocolate? No chocolate – now THAT is my idea of an apocalyptic scenario.

Daily Life in Maya CivilizationIf you happen to be interested in learning how the Maya developed and used their system of calendars (my explanation is extremely simplified) Daily Life in Maya Civilization by Robert J. Sharer is a great place to start. This very readable book has a great chapter on Maya calendrics and writing that is packed with interesting facts, one being that the Maya developed a system similar to our leap year in order to correct for flaws in the calendar caused by the manner in which the Earth travels around the sun.

The Code of Kings by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews tells the story of seven sacred Maya sites using translations of inscriptions found on temples and tombs. The Code of Kings includes some wonderful photographs of Maya sites, as well as a collection of highly-detailed illustrations of inscriptions. This fascinating account of Maya civilization and culture is written in a very accessible way that doesn’t cater only to those who study the Maya in-depth.

Chronicle of Maya Kings and QueensChronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube is just what it sounds like! Collected here are the stories of the 152 kings and 4 ruling queens in recorded Maya history. I love books like these because they take what is often a dry discussion of inanimate objects (sites, artifacts,  etc.) and introduces a human element. I think many of us tend to unconsciously imagine tombs, carvings, and statues when we think of ancient cultures, so it’s great to be reminded that there were real people behind those images of the past.  Sprinkled throughout this book are helpful discussions about basic aspects of Maya civilization (geography, historic timelines, cultural practices, deciphering the glyphs, etc.) that make the stories of the royals more understandable.

Look Close See Far by Bruce T. Martin is a beautiful collection of photographs that depict modern Maya, as well as significant ancient sites. These images are accompanied by explanations written by eminent scholars of Maya culture.

Four Creations: an Epic Story of the Chiapas Mayas edited and translated by Gary H. Gossen is by far my favorite book that I discovered while writing this post. IFour Creationsn order to truly understand Maya culture, it is important to learn more about how they believe the universe works. The best insights into these views usually come from storytelling and mythology. In Four Creations, the author gathered stories from modern Maya storytellers and historic texts, covering pre-contact origin myths all the way to newer mythologized accounts of modern events. This is a fascinating read, accompanied by the artwork of modern Maya. I love that each translation is printed next to the stories in their original Tzotzil-language form. A final plus is that this book treats the Maya as a living, breathing, very much in-the-present people, rather than a culture known for past glories and an early demise.

Lisa

What’s in a Name?

When you order books for the library, a lot of different titles come to your attention. Many are straightforward (The Complete Guide to Roofing & Siding), some are brazen (F**k It Therapy : The Profane Way to Profound Happiness), and others are just bizarre (Fifty Shades of Chicken : A Parody in a Cookbook ). But every so often you come across a title that is so intriguing, you have to put down your copy of Library Journal and place a hold on it. Such a moment struck me when I came across The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death by Jill Lepore.

Even after reading a review or two I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I got my hands on the book. What I found did not disappoint. Lepore has written a clever, funny and quirky series of essays that examines the peculiarly American take on what it means to be born, to live, and to die and how those ideas have changed throughout our history.

Now I know that the subtitle (A History of Life and Death) might make the book sound grandiose or way too general but it isn’t at all. As she states in her introduction: “To write history is to make an argument by telling a story. This is, above all, a book of stories.”  And luckily for the reader, the stories she tells are doozies.

The chapter “Baby Food” is a good example. The author examines the surprisingly contentious social history of the “proper” way for an infant to get nutrition. As the tale unfolds you are introduced to people such as Dr. Fritz Talbot who in 1910 started the Wet Nurse Directory, policy statements like the American Academy of Pediatrics position paper on breast feeding in 1997, and technology such as the Medela ‘Pump In Style’ breast pump. All of these elements are weaved together in an entertaining and insightful way.

Many of the chapters are gems but a few of the stand outs include:

“All About Erections”: Concerning Sylvester Graham’s crusade against ‘self-pollution’ and the curious history of sex education.

“Mr. Marriage”: Examining the disturbing connections between marriage counseling, founded by Paul Popenoe, and eugenics.

“Happiness Minutes”: Highlighting the lives of Lillian and Frank Gilberth and the attempt to run your life along scientific management principles.

My favorite though, is the final chapter “Resurrection”. Lepore interviews Robert Ettinger and tours the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan. The institute is really just a small warehouse that preserves the frozen remains of those who hope to one day be revived by future scientific methods. While the idea is clearly ludicrous, the essay isn’t cruel, though it is funny. Instead Lepore effectively highlights the strong pull of self-centered belief and how it often triumphs over reason.

Life is full of surprises. But one of the best is discovering a book that actually lives up to its intriguing title.

Richard