Shallow Choices

There are a lot of great reasons to choose a book. An interesting topic, a good review, a friend’s recommendation or even an intriguing title are all tried and true methods of selecting a book here at the library. But let me recommend one other way that might seem frivolous at first: beauty. While definitely a poor method for choosing human (and pet for that matter) companionship, selecting a book based solely on looks can yield great results. It can even introduce you to titles you might not dream of looking at otherwise.

Still skeptical? Take a gander at these four titles that I plucked off the shelves for their beauty alone; and ended up thoroughly enjoying.

The Old West, Then & Now by Vaughan Grylls

The concept for this book is deceptively simple: display a historical photograph of an important location in the development of the idea of the American west and juxtapose it with a recent one. Seeing the differences, or not, brought to a place by the simple passage of time is actually quite thought provoking and complex. It doesn’t hurt that the photographs, both old and recent, are stunning and the locations well chosen, either.

Star Wars Propaganda by Pablo Hidalgo

Whether you are a potential recruit for the Empire or the Rebellion, you will find a lot of gorgeous art posters to confirm or deny your leanings in this unique book. This work takes its Star Wars lore very seriously, with a detailed chronology that places each poster in a specific time and place within the Star Wars universe.  But even if you don’t know Darth Vader from Darth Maul, you will enjoy the sleek artwork and the sometimes-disturbing references to current cultural events and tropes that are displayed.

The World of Dinosaurs by Mark Norell

A post about beautiful books wouldn’t be complete without one on the topic of dinosaurs now would it? These long extinct creatures have been the subject of artists reconstructions since the first fossilized bones were dug out of the ground. This masterwork, chock full of speculative illustrations and photographs of the fossils themselves, is a feast for the eyes. Being authored by the chairman of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History guarantees that all the speculation is scientific and based on the latest research as well.

The Drink that Made Wisconsin Famous by Doug Hoverson

While beauty might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Wisconsin and beer, this book is definitely gorgeous. Chock full of photographs of vintage advertising, bottles in various shapes and hues, and historical as well and modern production machinery, this book is truly a looker. In addition to the beauty, this impressive tome is chock full of well researched and detailed histories regarding brewing and breweries in the Badger state. Plus, beer!

So, go ahead, and be a little bit shallow. Check out a book or two based solely on looks.

Not Your Father’s Ancient History

Do you like your historical biographies bold and unapologetic? Do you want to learn something new from a set of seemingly old and exhausted primary sources? Want to hear the tale of a person constrained by crushing societal forces, but striking out in an unconventional and incredibly effective way? Finally, are you o.k. with expletives and current cultural references while learning about the ancient world? If so, let me recommend to you the thrilling, fascinating, well researched and bitingly funny Agrippina: The Most Extraordinary Woman of the Roman World by Emma Southon. Read on to find out more.

If you haven’t heard of Agrippina before (technically Agrippina the Younger but, as Southon points out, the Romans were super unoriginal when it came to giving a child a name) you have probably run across some of her notorious relations. She was the granddaughter of the first emperor Augustus, the sister of the emperor Caligula (yes, that one!), the wife of the emperor Claudius, her own uncle (Ewww), and the mother of Nero (oh, my!).

So with an interesting pedigree like that, why haven’t you heard more about her? Well the elephant in the room when it comes to telling the story of a woman in the ancient world, and much of history alas, is who does the telling. The two primary surviving historical accounts of her time are written by two senators, Tacitus and Suetonius, roughly a hundred years later. Both had a major axe to grind when it came to the idea of a woman stepping out of her ‘proper’ role and, heaven forbid, wielding a little power for herself.

Southern does an excellent job of demonstrating how Agrippina only shows up in the historical record at all as a foil or reaction to a male protagonist. Because of this, there are huge gaps when it comes to trying to form a cohesive narrative of her life. Most historians look at the gaps and just give up on trying to tell her story at all. Not Sothern. Instead she embraces the ambiguity and speculation with gusto and produces a convincing and entertaining account.

It is really hard to do her style justice by just describing it, so I’ll just quote a great passage here concerning Agrippina’s mother, yet another Agrippina, and her return to Rome after her husband’s death:

Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome in 19CE with two symbolic middle fingers raised in Tiberius’s direction, while Tiberius sulked in his palace. The atmosphere went slowly downhill from here. But they were family, and – like Michael Bluth – the Julio-Claudians put family first. They couldn’t just avoid one another and get on with their lives, and Agrippina the Elder didn’t want that anyway. Agrippina the Elder wanted revenge.

So clearly this is not your father’s ancient history. But if you give this excellent history a chance, you will be thanking the gods that it isn’t when you finish.

The Truth is Out There (But Probably Not in Textbooks)

Dedicated to all American history teachers
who teach against their textbooks
(and their ranks keep growing)

And so begins the updated edition of Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. “Every teacher, every student of history, every citizen should read this book,” said Howard Zinn. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “an extremely convincing plea for truth in education.” My husband exasperatingly declared, “I can’t believe you still haven’t read this book, Carol!”

Since this month’s reading challenge is to read a book about American history, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to see what all the buzz is about–and finally let my husband rest his weary voice.

First, let’s be clear: the author is not bashing teachers! He knows that teachers need to teach from the textbooks provided. And the books are only as good as their authors. Some authors are better than others, but overall the state of textbooks–American history textbooks specifically–need to be reformed. As the author points out in the introduction when discussing how most textbooks are 1,200 pages or more:

Indeed, state and local textbook committees should not select *any* 1,200 page hardcover book. As the introduction to the second edition points out, there is no pedagogical justification for such large tomes. Their only reason for being is economic. These textbooks now retail for more than $100 and cost more than $70 even when ordered in quantity by states and school districts. It’s easy to understand why publishers keep on making them. It’s harder to understand why school districts keep buying them.

Topics range from the Vietnam War, the truth about Columbus, and how we have a bad habit of creating heroes out of people who were, at best, regular folks and at worst, total monsters. The book focuses on educational texts, sure, but the point it’s really trying to get across is that we need to educate children and teens to think critically and apply skepticism, not cynicism, to everything they consume: books, internet sites, news reports, and social media posts. This starts in the classroom and it starts with teaching critical thinking skills.

Let me reassure you that there are photographs. Sure, they’re in black and white, but I’m always reassured that a history book won’t be too dry and boring if I can find illustrations, maps, photographs, or other visual helpers to keep my brain engaged if it wants to wander. Many of the images in this book come directly from the textbooks the author reviewed.

Sometimes the representative textbook photos are good, like showing two images representing early Native American societies, one showing an organized society and the other showing people on horseback seemingly wandering. The caption asks students to discern which happened before white settlers arrived and which was after. This builds critical thinking skills and encourages students to find information to support their conclusions. It also busts the lie we’ve been told about how indigenous communities were uncivilized people who welcomed white saviors.

Other times, the representative textbook photos are reeeeeally not good. For instance, a racist cartoon that is still printed in high school textbooks with either no context or a skewed viewpoint. Stating your opinion–especially when it’s racist and contrary to reality–as fact does not make it a fact. But this is what students are taught and tested on. When we teach our children racist views as a requirement of their education, is it any wonder our society has problems with systemic racism and the inability to tell fact from fake news?

This all means that often the illustrations included in textbooks do a great disservice to the students forced to use them in class. It’s just one layer upon many that make up the cracks in our educational foundation. A foundation that is in serious need of repair.

I just checked this book out today. I’ll be reading it this month to complete the reading challenge and I just know I will be completely insufferable as I plague friends and strangers alike with the misinformation, misrepresentations, censorship, and outright lies we’ve all been fed. But this is good, and it’s exactly what the author was going for. He wants people to think and learn and grow and challenge the way we’ve been taught American history. We must stand up for facts, and push back against the BS.

Have you read this classic? I’d love to hear the most shocking or surprising fact you learned from the book. From what I can tell so far skimming, there are an embarrassing amount to choose from.

The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson

Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.

THAT was the extent of my knowledge of this case prior to reading the excellent book The Trial of Lizzie Borden by Cara Robertson. Part trial transcript, and part documentary, this is a fascinating book!

The only part of the song that is true, is that the (step) mother was killed first.

The crime occurred in August of 1892. Within hours of the crime being committed,  there were dozens of people tromping through the crime scene. Forensics were obviously not what they are today! Because of this lack of reliable physical evidence, testimonies were often contradictory and most of the evidence was circumstantial.

Lizzie was considered the only one that could have done it, but the maid was in the house as well at the time. The murders were a little over an hour apart, and the force of the blows required would have caused a lot of blood spatter, but no-one saw any blood on Lizzie’s dress…… but, coincidentally, Lizzie burned a blue dress similar to the one she supposedly wore a couple of days after the murders. Three axes were found, but none were ever proven to be the murder weapon.

The book takes you through the trial day by day, and made me feel as though I was in the courtroom. It was the first trial that became a media circus, with reporters from around the country attending.

At the end of the trial, Lizzie was found not guilty but each of us is allowed draw our own conclusions. I myself believe she did it, but there wasn’t any proof beyond a reasonable doubt. At the end of the book, the reader is asked to “submit your verdict and join the conversation.” I hope you enjoy the drama as much as I did!

The Benefits of a Classical Education

History is all in the telling. I’ve always enjoyed a good work of history, especially ancient history, but can understand if others are a bit hesitant. If a history book is an unending list of dates, a dry rendition of ‘what happened,’ or just an academic author trying to prove a point it can be annoying and, worse yet, deadly dull even if you enjoy the topic. The best way to guard against selecting historical duds, I’ve found, is to discover an exciting and intriguing history writer.

Mary Beard is one such author. A bit of an institution in the UK, Mary Beard brings a fresh perspective on classical history with everything she writes. She does this by bringing forward the stories of those groups often forgotten in history, classical or otherwise, and by showing history to be an ever-changing debate amongst those doing the telling. Being skeptical and critical of consensus when it comes to the stories we are told is her default position it seems.

So clearly, I like her stuff. But will you? Long works of history can be intimidating so why not try something shorter to start. Mary Beard has an excellent blog if you want to start electronically sampling her work. If a book is more your style might I suggest the very short, almost a pamphlet really, Women & Power: A Manifesto. Based on a series of lectures, this book is crammed full of intriguing concepts about the way classical ideas about women in power continue to affect our current culture, including the last presidential election. Try this excellent book and you will never look at Medusa (not a good thing to do to start with) the same way again.

Now that you have gotten your feet wet, it’s time to delve into a longer work. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is one of Beard’s best. Don’t be put off by the long time frame, almost 1000 years of history, since this is not a chronicle of what happened when. Instead, Beard illuminates the ideas and controversies that the Romans argued over and debated as they went from small city-state to far-flung empire. Many of these ideas have great resonance with issues we face today. The icing on the cake is how she clues you into the way historians actually put together the facts and lets you make your own decisions about what might have really happened and its significance.

There are many great books to highlight in Mary Beard’s collection, but let me just suggest two more that are exceptional:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations is an outstanding collection of essays on a diverse and intriguing number of topics related to the ancient world. She brings her signature wit and depth of knowledge to each essay and is always entertaining. Plus how can you resist essay titles such as ‘Alexander: How Great?’, ‘Who Wanted Remus Dead?’, ‘Bit-Part Emperors’, and ‘Married to the Empire’?

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found is an attempt, with no claims of certain knowledge despite what some other historians and archaeologists might state, to figure out how the residents of Pompeii lived before Vesuvius buried the town in ash. It was a city full of bright colors, noxious smells and sculpted phalluses, placed for luck that clearly ran out, everywhere.  Who better than Mary Beard to guide you through this fascinating, yet disturbing, place?

So there you have a few suggestions to get you started. Choose one that appeals and be confident in the knowledge that you will be in the hands of a master storyteller.

The Best Books I Read in 2018

2018 brought a lot of heartache and stress.

I probably shouldn’t start this post out that way, but looking back it’s been an exhausting year for me. I sold my house, bought a new one, dealt with the movers using a broken toilet and overflowing the house we no longer owned (yes, really), packed and unpacked an insane amount of boxes stacked Tetris-style in a storage unit, spent months figuring out what plants I had in my new yard and how to not kill them, hosted visits from Midwestern family loves, and had to say goodbye to the sweetest cat ever.

It’s been barely controlled chaos. And that’s not even looking outward at our divided country and other political and social nightmares popping up on a daily basis.

However.

2018 also brought a deluge of amazing books. While society is one large dumpster fire and I still have a ton of stuff to check off my never-ending to-do list, giving up sleep in favor of reading means that I got to read more this year than I expected. So without further ado here are just a few of the best books I read this year.

Pride : a Pride and Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi
This is the modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice I had been waiting for! I read this in one sitting and want to go back and read it again–which is so rare for me I can’t even. Our setting is modern-day Bushwick, Brooklyn. Our Bennet family is actually the Benitez family, Afro-Latino and close-knit. Our Darcys are still the Darcys, but these Darcys buy the entire building across the street from the Benitez’s building and renovate it into one luxurious home for just the four of them. To Zuri Benitez the Darcys–and especially their arrogant son Darius–embody the gentrification that is rapidly changing her neighborhood and pricing out families who have lived there for generations. But Zuri’s older sister Janae is crushing hard on Darius’s older brother Ainsley, and thus Zuri is reluctantly drawn into Darius’s universe, even as her place in both Bushwick and the world (hello, college applications!) shifts. Pride is filled with emotion and possibility, and the characters speak like real teens, not like the stuffy ideal aristocracy in the original P&P. I am one of the few who didn’t like the original, so Pride really spoke to me and has become an instant classic.

We Are Not Yet Equal : Understanding the Racial Divide by Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson’s groundbreaking White Rage has been adapted for teens, and I’m here to tell you this book is for literally everyone. Anderson reframes the conversation about race with a straightforward and accessible voice. Her chronology begins at the end of the Civil War and follows through to the turmoil we face today. Anderson focuses on the systemic and sadly legal ways American society has suppressed progress for African-Americans. Racism is a horrible problem we still face today, but by learning from the past–and present–there can be hope for change in the future. There are historic photos and added resources for further reading and reflection. Hand this book to your relative who thinks everyone was made equal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and doesn’t understand why we definitely still need activists and movements like Black Lives Matter.

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy : 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health edited by Kelly Jensen
I’ve been steadily diversifying my TBR, adding in authors of color and LGBTQIA authors, generally absorbing life experiences that are different from my own as a way to expand empathy and understanding of more people. I haven’t been so great about seeking out books explaining mental health and how mental health challenges can look different to each individual. Kelly Jensen–former librarian, current Book Riot editor, and all-around book champion–has assembled a diverse and absorbing introduction to this extremely important and under-represented demographic. Each essay is from a different perspective but straightforward and descriptive, helping the reader see through each author’s eyes. What’s it like to be called crazy? And how can we start having real and true conversations about mental health when such stigma is attached? This book answers those questions and so much more.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
At a secluded house party, Evelyn Hardcastle will die. She’ll die every night at 11pm until Aiden Bishop can determine who her killer is and break the cycle. However, each day he wakes up in the body of a different party guest, with no way to predict which body he’ll inhabit next. As he lives each day and learns more about Evelyn, Aiden becomes determined to not only unmask the killer, but he intends to prevent her death entirely. This is the perfect mystery for readers who think they’re pretty good at predicting twists and figuring out whodunnit. Seriously, it’s just…not what you’re expecting, even if you (accurately) expect a murder mystery that answers the question: What would happen if Agatha Christie wrote a mash-up of Groundhog Day and Quantum Leap? Don’t let the number of pages fool you. You’ll stay up late and cancel plans to finish reading this book.


Darius the Great is Not Okay
by Adib Khorram, There There by Tommy Orange, and Vox by Christina Dalcher
These books were fantastic and at the tippy-top of the favorites pile for me. I won’t go into detail here because Jesse and I have already written in-depth reviews about each. Go check them out and thank us later.

Darius the Great is Not Okay, aka Star Trek, Soccer, and Ancient Persian Kings
There There, aka The Best Book I’ll Read This Year
Vox, aka 900 Words About Vox

Well, that’s all for me. As we wave goodbye to another year of fantastic reading, I can’t help but wonder what 2019 will bring us. Drop a comment below with titles you’re looking forward to reading and when they’ll be published. Because if this year taught me anything it’s this: my TBR cannot be too big, and reading when I’m stressed is the best thing for my soul.

What to Read While You Wait for Becoming

As of this writing I’m number 28 in a holds queue of 38 for the most-requested book right now at EPL. Don’t worry–I’m not here to complain! I do believe that good things come to those who wait. But I also believe that waiting shouldn’t be boring. I want to share with you some other rad books out there that those of us waiting for Michelle Obama’s Becoming can read while we wait patiently somewhat patiently kinda impatiently–okay, totally impatiently but at least we’ll have fab reading material in line! There’s quite a mix of books and audio here, certain to help keep you busy and keep you satisfied while you wait just a teeny tiny bit longer for your copy to come in.

Audio that lets us listen to Michelle
First of all, if you would rather have Michelle read her book Becoming to you, you should get yourself in the holds queue for that. But while you wait you can still hear Michelle and other First Ladies give important speeches by listening to Great Speeches by First Ladies of the United States. In addition to Michelle you’ll also hear Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, Laura Bush, and many more. There’s also Ibeyi’s Ash, in particular the track No Man is Big Enough for My Arms, which features clips from Michelle Obama’s speeches.

Two amazing books packed with photos of Michelle
Michelle Obama is one of my style icons. Not only does she always appear stylish and put together, but she often wears affordable, off-the-rack items that regular Janes like me can pick up. Chasing Light and the children’s adaptation Reach Higher are compilations of photos of Michelle taken by former official White House photographer Amanda Lucidon. You’ll catch Michelle tobogganing in China with a Secret Service agent, taking a selfie with a member of the armed forces, greeting heads of state (sometimes with her dogs Bo and Sunny), and harvesting vegetables from the White House Kitchen Garden. Yes, I’m inspired by her style, but I also love seeing how active and engaged she is with folks of all ages and from all walks of life.
   

Books that tell us more about Michelle
Biographies are popular, and as such we’ve got plenty stocked on the shelves to satisfy your need to know more about Michelle. Try one of these books that delve deep into her background, family history, and home life. You’ll also find books where other people talk about why they admire Michelle, and those are worth a read, too.

 

 

 

 

Books that show us how to be a leader
Want to be more like Michelle? One of my favorite types of books to read are books on leadership, especially ones that focus up on how leadership challenges can be very different for women and non-binary folks. These books each take a different track but all of them show you a way to grow your leadership skills and be the boss. There are also stories of women who succeeded despite the odds, and they inspire me every bit as much as Michelle Obama does.
      

One very special bonus book
When I’m missing someone my heart hurts. Like, really badly hurts. One remedy for heartache (even the good kind) is to curl up with a book that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. For me there’s no better pairing than the characters Heart and Brain, and Heart and Brain: Gut Instincts by Nick Seluk of The Awkward Yeti is one of the best compilations. Brain is the pragmatic character, the one who remembers deadlines and obligations. Heart, by contrast, is all about living in the moment and enjoying life. Together they bring together the qualities of common sense and empathy that I respect Michelle Obama for having in great quantity.

So what do you think? Can you get by a little while longer in the holds queue? I know I’ve got a full TBR and while I still very much want to read Becoming, I feel better knowing I have other satisfying reads to occupy my time in line.