Tag Archives: Adult Non-Fiction

The Role of Religion in these United States: Jon Meacham’s American Gospel

The proper role of religion in the United States of America has been a source of debate since the beginning of the country, a debate that continues to this very day. Political parties, social institutions, and individuals all put forth their varied opinions as to the appropriate level of influence religion should have in the public and government sectors.

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In American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Mr. Meacham provides a well-balanced, well-researched investigation of this question focusing on the writings of the Founding Fathers, which form the foundation and framework upon which the United States government operates today, as well as an examination of the state of the country at the time of its founding and how the conditions of that time affected the authoring of the governing documents and the thinking of those who wrote them. On page 232 Mr. Meacham wrote:

“A grasp of history is essential for Americans of the center who struggle to decide how much weight to assign a religious consideration in a public matter. To fail to consult the past consigns us to what might be called the tyranny of the present – the mistaken idea that the crises of our own time are unprecedented and that we have to solve them without experience to guide us.”

The tyranny of the present. In other words, there is nothing new under the sun, and Mr. Meacham certainly has a large body of work by some of the most progressive and brilliant thinkers in history to consult on this matter. And he does not simply repeat oft-heard quotes or ideas (i.e., “a wall of separation between Church & State” taken from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802); rather, he provides the context from which these quotes were taken, which allows for a greater understanding of the intent of the author.

While this subject matter is rather complex, Mr. Meacham displays a true talent in relating it in a manner that is easy to understand, and this, I believe, is what makes American Gospel so remarkable. Furthermore, considering the import of this topic to the nation, it would seem advisable for all to become more familiar with it so that one can be in a better position to make informed decisions as an individual citizen. After all, an informed electorate is essential to the success of a republic such as ours.

“This last is the most certain and the most legitimate engine of government. Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” – Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Uriah Forrest, December 31, 1787

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), Audiobook (CD)

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow

fatalfeverWho was Typhoid Mary? Was she a villain or victim?  Were her assessors after fame or just doing their job?  Or was Mary just the scapegoat for officials who waited too long to clean up their cities?

Typhoid fever at first caused headaches and fatigue, then by a high fever, stomach pain, chills, and a red rash. One out of three people who contracted typhoid died. And as the deadly disease broke out in New York cities, thousands died.

George Soper’s job as a sanitation engineer made him an expert on germs that caused disease. Now it was his job to stop this contagious disease from spreading.  He found the filthy living conditions in cities, with their open sewers, contaminated water, dead animals in the streets and horse manure  were spreading disease and death. Soper came to show the city officials how to clean up their streets but he found more.

He found a cook named Mary Mallon.  She was a young teen when she crossed the ocean to America from Ireland. She learned her trade as a cook the hard way, working as scullery maid, until she mastered the knowledge to become a cook to the very rich.  She also was believed to be a carrier of millions of typhoid germs.

Hell Gate was an island in New York’s East River originally set up to quarantine smallpox victims.  By the turn of the century, a hospital there held anyone  who needed to be isolated and forgotten.  Mary was imprisoned on Hell Gate, released, and later returned to quarantine when found to have return to her original occupation.

Mary died in captivity at the age of 69.  She never offered her side of the story. All that is known of Mary’s beliefs were that she never saw herself to be sick or to be the source of the various outbreaks of typhoid left in her wake.

 

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Hell Gate Hospital today.

A tale straight out of the history books – laced with original photos, documents, illustrations and cartoons from newspapers and magazines – yet it reads like a murder mystery. This is a good read but would equally make a good source for a school report.

You be the judge.  Pick up Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow.

Note: The illustrated cartoon demonstrating how flies spread the disease was drawn by illustrator Vernon Grant who would later draw Kellogg’s Snap, Crackle and Pop.

Format Available: Book

Reviewed by Katy, Shawnee Branch

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

zookeeper-wife-bookclubThe Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman is a work of non-fiction that centers  on the lives of the Zabinskis’ in World War II. They owned a zoo in Warsaw prior to the war and used this zoo during the war to hide Jewish people. This book originally was brought to my attention when it was mentioned during a documentary about Lutz Heck and his attempt to create perfect animal species with money from famous Nazi leader, Hermann Göring.

The story is mostly is a retelling of Antonina Zabinski’s personal diary from before and during the war. The family’s history and life before the war is introduced in the beginning of the book and tells of how they became owners of the Warsaw Zoo. They were both passionate about animals and rehabilitated many within the zoo. Eventually the war reaches their doorstep and wreaks havoc within the zoo walls. Animals are quickly slaughtered or let loose to roam the streets of Warsaw. The zoo is taken over by many people after the beginning of the war and also takes on many different faces including a farm for pigs at one point.

Antonina and her husband Jan both held the ideal that Nazi racism was “inexplicable, devilish, and a disgust to the soul.” Even though his father was a staunch atheist, Jan had grown up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood and held a high regard for the Jewish people. In the summer of 1940, the Zabinskis’ made the decision to become a part of the Resistance to provide safe hiding places for Jews within the zoo. Even though German soldiers frequented the zoo for a place of solitude, they regarded the Slavs as a highly stupid race that was only fit for physical labor so they never expected them to hiding Jewish people in the tunnels of the zoo.  To allow the “guests” to remain undercover, the refugees were given animal names and the animals were given human names to confuse anyone that may have been visiting the zoo. The zoo took in several families during the following years and saved them from either a life of hard labor or death in the concentration camps.

ZookeeperWife100207This story was an intriguing read and was certainly a different viewpoint of World War II. We often hear about the astounding numbers of deaths of humans in World War II, but not about the number of animals in zoos or homes that were lost. The Zabinskis’ story is one of heroism, humanity and resilience in a war torn country. Without them, many more Jews would have been slaughtered by the Nazi’s. Ackerman, a naturalist by trade, does a decent job portraying the facts and little more. Many reviewers have noted that she does mistake some of her numbers within her research, but the casual reader will probably never notice this while reading this book. I would recommend this book to any history lover and especially those who enjoy tales of true humanity during World War II.

This book is set to become a movie starring Jessica Chastain sometime in 2016.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Warsaw Zoo opened a permanent exhibit honoring the Zabinskis this year on April 11, 2015.

Formats Available: Book, eBook, Audio, Large-Type

Reviewed by Sara, Okolona Branch

Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam

“When I was growing up in Port Clinton 50 years ago, my parents talked about, ‘We’ve got to do things for our kids. We’ve got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a better swimming pool, or we’ve got to pay higher taxes so we can have a new French department in school,’ or whatever. When they said that, they did not just mean my sister and me — it was all the kids here in town, of all sorts. But what’s happened…is that over this last 30, 40, 50 years, the meaning of ‘our kids’ has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed so that now when people say, ‘We’ve got to do something for our kids,’ they mean MY biological kids.”  – Robert D. Putnam

In his latest work, Robert D. Putnam, the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, puts forth an issue that he fervently believes should today be one of the primary topics of domestic public policy at the government level and household discussion among the citizenry: the drastic and growing divide in the United States between affluent and non-affluent children.

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In order to support his supposition, Mr. Putnam narrates many stories of both rich and poor children that he learned of through the personal interviews that he and his team of ethnographers and statisticians had with these young people. While these interviews originate in towns and cities across the country, he has an especially narrow focus on his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio in which he compares and contrasts the picture these current narratives paint with that of his own personal past in which he believes the phrase “our kids” would be taken to refer to all the children of a particular community, as opposed to one’s own biological offspring; in other words, people in the United States today tend to not care about an issue if it does not directly affect their own children, even if the overall society suffers, and Mr. Putnam warns that this is a dangerous trend, as everyone and society as a whole benefits from the success of “our kids.”

“The evidence suggests that when in American history we’ve invested more in the education of less well-off kids, it’s been good for everybody,” Mr. Putnam states. “My grandchildren are going to pay a huge price in their adult life because there’s a bunch of other kids, in principle just as productive as them, who didn’t get investments from their family and community, and therefore are not productive citizens. The best economic estimates are that the costs to everybody, including my own grandchildren, of not investing in those ‘other people’s kids’ are going to be very high.”

Our Kids is highly engaging and balances the personal narratives with much data and many graphs that do not overwhelm, but rather compliment his point. Mr. Putnam does a fine job of defining and describing an issue of great import to the country today, which he hopes, and others I am sure hope, will not become partisan; rather, the focus should be on solutions.

“This investment is not yet seen as a partisan issue, and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The notion that all of us have a shared interest in investing in our shared future, which is these kids, is not and has not historically been a partisan issue.”  – Robert D. Putnam

Source of quotes:
Putnam, Robert D. (2015, March 19). Why you should care about other people’s kids. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/care-peoples-kids

Formats Available:  Book (Regular Type and Large Type), eBook, Audiobook (CD)

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Road Trip Essentials: Audiobooks

Summer is the season of family vacations and this means often long road trips accompanied by restless travelers of all ages. Regardless of your reading preference or road trip companions, the absolute best way to pass the time on a long road trip is by listening to an audiobook. Sharing an engaging story with your vacation companions can stave off the repetition of, “are we there yet?” and turn even the most reluctant reader into backseat book critic.

Below you’ll find a few of my favorites from a variety of genres and talented narrators. In most cases I have a personal preference for authors as narrators, but some very talented voice actors are noted below. Most genres listed feature children’s (C), teen (T), and adult (A) titles. Although the adult titles may not be appropriate for children/teens, adults should not restrict themselves to only adult titles. A well-executed audiobook, although geared toward a younger audience, can easily be enjoyed by all ages. No matter the variety of personal tastes filling your vehicle there is an audiobook (or two, or three) that will meet your needs.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

The graveyard book

Realistic/Historical Fiction

Code name Verity

Mystery

The Secret of the Old Clock

Memoir/Biography/Non-Fiction

The ultimate David Sedaris box set

Format: Audiobook

Reviewed by Magen, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch 

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

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The University of Southern California recently released some astonishing statistics on the amount of information a person encounters every day.  Whether it comes from advertising, content on social media or bumper stickers seen on the drive home, a good deal of what we consume is riddled with faulty logic! If you’ve ever heard or read an argument that sounded wrong but you weren’t quite sure why, The Art of Thinking Clearly can help.

Dobelli’s book is a catalog of logical fallacies and everyday examples to illustrate them.  “Catalog of Logical Fallacies” is not a sexy title so Dobelli wisely chose something more accessible. A cheerleader for precision in thought and speech, he teaches his readers to identify fallacies so they can spot sloppy thinking and build sound arguments of their own.

While the web provides numerous free sites that explain fallacies, Dobelli adds value to the learning experience. A recurring theme in the book is how to overcome the human weaknesses that lead us to make bad decisions.  We struggle to understand exponential growth, which can affect our financial lives; believe that there is a balancing force in the universe, which can affect our success at the craps table; and over plan, which can lead to unrealistic expectations and a stack of unfulfilled to do lists.  For each fallacy, the author offers a next time component, advising readers how to change their response in order to achieve a better outcome.

Dobelli’s collection includes 99 brief chapters that are perfect to breeze through and contemplate one-by-one.  Even if you only read a dozen, it will change how you respond to information and ultimately make you a better decision maker.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

Ghosts By Daylight: Love, War and Redemption

Until I read Janine Di Giovanni’Ghosts By Daylight: Love, War and Redemption, I never considered the emotional toll journalists endure to bring us stories from the world’s conflict zones.  It turns out that giving a voice to the voiceless, as Di Giovanni calls her work, carries a heavy price.

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A veteran journalist who currently serves as Middle East editor at Newsweek, Di Giovanni routinely shares first person accounts of wartime suffering and violence that are often difficult to read. After reading her memoir I believe she would say that if she didn’t include details of the abuse the powerful inflict on the powerless, she wouldn’t be doing her job. If you’re hesitant to read about how humans torment other humans in wartime, be assured that Ghosts by Daylight is less about the atrocities of war than it is about how journalists cope with having witnessed them.

In her memoir, Di Giovanni describes her decision in her early 40s to leave her life in war zones behind, at least for awhile, to start a family in Paris with a French war photographer and love of her life. While one would expect her to experience relief at finally getting out of the insecurity of war and into a comfortable Parisian life, the reality is that human beings, like the conflicts we create with each other, are much more complicated. From her apartment in one of Paris’s quietest districts, she describes hoarding food, water, antibiotics and drafting an evacuation plan in case the city was ever under siege. When recounting her actions, she recalls that she never worried about being able to take care of herself, but the idea of being responsible for her infant son in a situation like the ones she has seen in the field gave her overwhelming anxiety.  Di Giovanni never felt afraid when she was dodging snipers in Sarajevo or negotiating with drugged and armed child soldiers in Cote d’Ivoire. Instead the realities and responsibilities of parenthood triggered the debilitating terror for which she had never gotten treatment.

Di Giovanni cites the disproportionate number of war correspondents who experience depression, substance abuse and suicide, all suggestive of untreated PTSD.  Whether symptoms strike at the work site or after returning home, the consequences can be deadly. She describes PTSD manifesting itself in reckless behavior, like her colleague who had once driven around Sniper Alley in Sarajevo with his car spray painted: Don’t waste your bullets; I am immortal.  Attributing her actions to the overconfidence of the survivor, she once argued with a soldier who had a weapon pointed at her heart to let her companion, a rebel who was surely to be executed, go free. After years of running into dangerous situations and not knowing where she would sleep each night, she came home to find that the danger she had evaded in the field felt as close and menacing as ever.

War correspondents make a career of helping us understand what it’s like to live in the absence of safety. Janine Di Giovanni’s memoir of living with PTSD offers a glimpse of how journalists experience that insecurity long after their assignment is over.

I first encountered Janine Di Giovanni’s work in Best American Travel Writing 2014. Her essay on covering the Bosnian War was so engrossing that I pursued her other works, including a piece about Syria in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. To find her thought-provoking and candid coverage of conflict zones all over the world, search for her name in the library’s EbscoHost Academic Search Complete  database.

Her new book, Seven Days in Syria, is due out this summer.

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print)

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee (Builder) Williams

 

 

…I stumbled into a new sort of “happiness,” one that didn’t hinge on always getting what I want, but rather, on wanting what I have. It’s the kind of happiness that isn’t tied so tightly to being comfortable (or having money or property), but instead is linked to a deeper sense of satisfaction—to a sense of humility and gratitude, and a better understanding of who I am in my heart.”  – Dee Williams, The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir

We all have those days that are just overwhelming and make us want to escape for a little while. Whenever the struggle of the daily grind starts to stress me out, I begin to fantasize about selling all my worldly possessions and cramming my life into a tiny house by the sea, or in the mountains…or movable between the two. That’s why I was immediately drawn to The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir, by Dee Williams.

When faced with the reality of struggling to exuberantly live while suffering from congestive heart failure, Dee Williams philosophizes on how much lighter our metaphorical loads would be if only we could literally lighten our physical loads. She challenges herself to take control of her life by simplifying her living space through building a tiny house she then transports from her home in Seattle to Olympia, Washington. Williams takes the reader along on her personal journey through an honest portrayal of the challenges and successes she faces as she builds her new home and adjusts to a new life in her friends’ backyard. Through her conversational tone and humorous self reflections she details the realities of her drastic life change, resulting in a really heartfelt memoir. Although this book does not quite prepare the reader to follow her path to pair down your possessions to merely 305 items and commit to living in a structure you’ve created with your own hands, Williams’ story is inspiring and has drastically increased my perusal of tiny house materials available within LFPL.

For further proof that tiny houses can actually be built and inhabited by the average person check out the documentary Tiny: A Story About Living Small. This beautifully rendered independent film is an extremely honest portrayal of the struggles of the physical process of creating a tiny house as well as the interpersonal conflicts of convincing others in your life that this is a worthwhile pursuit.

 

If you’d like to lust after some well-appointed tiny houses in a beautiful, appropriately tiny, coffee table book check out Mimi Zeiger’s Tiny Houses.

 

To see some examples of small houses throughout history, including Henry Thoreau’s cabin, as well as some modern addaptations check out Lester Walker’s Tiny Houses: Designs for 43 Tiny Houses for Getting Away From it All. This book not only includes beautiful photos, but also some historical background and design sketches of each house featured.

If you’d like a bit more exploration of the philosophy behind the “tiny house movement” and logistical considerations for the planning phase of actually building your own tiny house Ryan Mitchell’s Tiny House Living: Ideas for Building & Living Well in Less the 400 Square Feet is a good place to start.

Those brave souls who may actually live the dream and build their own tiny house should consult Jay Schafer’s DIY Book of Backyard Sheds & Tiny Houses: Build Your Own Guest Cottage, Writing Studio, Home Office, Craft Workshop, or Personal Retreat for a glimpse at some practical and executable designs with tons of helpful tips on the actual building process.

 

Format: Book (Regular Type)

Reviewed by Magen, Highlands-Shelby Park Branch 

 

The Mockingbird Next Door

Interest piqued by the recent announcement that American literary legend Harper Lee will be publishing a new novel? Want to know what the author of one of the most widely read books in America has been doing for the past 50+ years? Marja MillsThe Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee is just about the only option you have, but fortunately it’s an excellent one.

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Lee, who was last in the public eye in the mid-1960s, has eschewed numerous opportunities to be recognized for her literary masterpiece, a book that helped fuel the progress of Civil Rights era reforms and whose hero, small town attorney Atticus Finch, continues to inspire readers today. Her motivations, as outlined by Mills, are certainly relatable: a desire to protect her own privacy and of those she loves; a distrust of those wishing to capitalize on her opus; and a general distaste for constantly being in the spotlight.

When writing Harper Lee’s biography, journalist Mills had to work hard to gain the author’s trust. The Chicago Tribune writer moved to Monroeville, AL with the intention of getting a few interviews and slowly developed earnest friendships with both Lee and her sister. Why did Lee lift the veil on her life now, why not live the rest of her days enjoying her privacy? Mills offers a few explanations. First, she wanted to have the story of the Lee family told by someone she trusted. Second, she wanted to set the record straight on a few things, namely any controversy that remains over who actually wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (Truman Capote, Lee’s childhood friend, had once claimed credit) and some allegations levied by Capote regarding Lee’s mother. Lee and Capote’s friendship had a long history and had even blossomed into a professional collaboration when she traveled to Kansas with him in the early 1960s to do research for what would later become In Cold Blood. The pain of betrayal Lee experienced with Capote is palpable in Mills’ pages.

So how does (Nelle) Harper Lee spend her days? For much of her adult life she spent half of her year in New York, where she enjoyed anonymity and the cultural offerings of a great city. The other half she spent in her hometown in Alabama, hanging out with friends and her beloved sister Alice, who in her 90s was still practicing law and being recognized for her work in social causes. Mills makes Lee’s days of fishing, storytelling and visiting cemeteries in her corner of Alabama sound as stimulating as her days in NYC must have been.

Mills’ unauthorized biography of Lee paints a picture of a woman true to herself and her values, who had to struggle against renown in order to live the life she wanted. The author maintains a professional detachment in reporting her story and spent enough time with Lee to know her as a person, not simply a literary legend.

Still, she confesses to occasionally feeling starstruck during those moments in Lee’s company when she realized, “Oh my god, I’m fishing/visiting/shopping for groceries with Harper Lee!” Dearest to the biographer’s heart were their morning coffee dates at Mills’ kitchen table, commenced by the phone ringing and Harper Lee’s voice on the other end saying, “Hi hon. You pourin’?”

Formats Available: Book (Regular Print and Large Type), eBook

Reviewed by Valerie, Iroquois Branch

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D Burns

feelingoodWinter months can seem to drag on forever.  With all the gray gloom it’s easy to start feeling glum.  It’s rare I recommend a self-help book — or even read one myself — but if you find this winter is taking its toll on you, try Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D. Burns.  Dr. Burns has been studying cognitive therapy and mood fluctuation for decades.  When Feeling Good first hit the shelves in 1980, no one knew much about cognitive therapy or how successful it could be as a means to treat depression and low self-confidence.  Now, many years and revised editions later, Feeling Good has sold millions of copies and is recommended by mental health professionals over and over.

Don’t let the topic scare you, this book is a wonderful reminder for us on how to be kind to ourselves whether you need a little winter pick-me-up, or are suffering with long term negative thoughts.  In studies, the ideas Dr. Burns discusses in Feeling Good are proven to work better than many other methods currently used to help improve mood and confidence.  Feeling anxious with life?  Work?  School?  Life?  These are all things which can bring people down and make them feel unsure.  The main focus of Dr. Burns research is that all thoughts create feelings.  Further, if we are able to turn initial negative thoughts around – and look at things more objectively – then our feelings will be more positive.  Sounds simple but for many of us it’s not.

Don’t let the winter months get you down, if you need a break from the cold but can’t afford a trip to warmer climates, try Feeling Good By Dr. Burns instead – and maybe mentally you can find your beach oasis.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Feeling Good  is discussed in Marbles by Ellen Forney which is one of March’s suggested reading titles for the Graphic Novel Discussion Group at the Main. Library.  The topic is Graphic Medicine: Narratives of Illness & Caregiving.  The meeting starts at 6:00 PM on Monday, March 9, 2015.