Tag Archive for: jhalbach

Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West by Katie Hickman

Katie Hickman’s Brave Hearted: The Women of the American West is as much about westward expansion and the colonization – or, in seemingly benign language, westward ‘migration’ and ‘settlement’ – of what we now know as the American West as it is about the history of the women who were among the first to make their way westward.

Stories, both fictional and non, of westward migration abound. Most of these stories, like much of the romanticized imagery of, and entertainment about, the American West, are about men–cowboys, explorers, fur traders, guides, merchants, military, warriors, etc. But what about the women? Although Brave Hearted is not, nor does it pretend to be, comprehensive, it helps tell a fuller story about travels to, and the settling of, the American West. And it all starts with a couple of ladies who felt called to missionary work.

Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, along with their husbands, set out for the so-called frontier in 1836. In fact, both women married their husbands, who they barely knew, in order to fulfill their dreams of becoming missionaries. It was unacceptable for women to set out on their own at that time and, even if it had been acceptable, women lacked the means to do so. But these two men needed the women as much as the women needed them because they needed to be married to set up permanent missionary settlements in the West. Thus, their marriages were mutually beneficial. It was an interesting dynamic, with a bit of personal history and tension (that you could read more about in the book proper).

The two couples set out from Liberty, Missouri, in the company of a handful of others, including a carpenter, who served as “lay assistant and mechanic,” three Nez Perce, and two other men. Communally, they made some necessary purchases for the journey, such as cattle, horses, and a farm wagon, and each carried “a plate, a knife and fork, and a tin cup.” Any other personal belongings were toted along however by whoever owned them. They were headed to an American Fur Company rendezvous spot from which they would start the “real” journey West. Their arrival caused a sensation there, as it did when they made it to their final destination, for Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding were the first white women to travel westward overland–it was a magnificent feat.

They, like the women who followed, left everything – material and immaterial – behind with the hopes of successfully establishing themselves in the West. Often, and likely more often than not, these women did not again see the family or friends who they left behind. Also, communication could be sparse, as it depended on mail delivery. To say it was not an easy journey, or an easy way of life if and when they got there, is perhaps an understatement.

Hickman’s book, however, isn’t just about the experiences of the Narcissa Whitmans and Eliza Spaldings of the world. As she writes in her introduction, the women she depicts “encompass an extraordinarily diverse range of humanity, of every class, every background, and of numerous different ethnicities, many of them rarely represented in histories of the West.” Indeed, that’s an accurate description, if self-described.

In addition to writing about the women of the Whitman Mission, Hickman writes about others who traveled west for religious reasons, such as the Mormons, as well as Native American, African American, Chinese, and other women, from all sorts of social classes and standings. Her story starts with Whitman and Spalding, presumably, because they were the first women who traveled overland to the west. Their success – meaning only that they actually arrived alive to where they were going – illustrated that women, too, were capable of making the journey. Soon thereafter, an unprecedented amount of people, including “unheard of” amounts of women, traveled overland to migrate west.

Not all women who landed in the west chose that journey, however. General Custer and his wife, Elizabeth, took their slave, Eliza, from camp to camp. Biddy Mason, who was born into slavery in Georgia in 1818, and her family were forced west by their owner, Robert Smith, who was part of the Mormon migration. Fortunately for Mason and her family, they were able to become freed when in California, due to a legality when Smith tried to remove them to Texas. Biddy Mason moved to Los Angeles, was “one of the first non-Mexican residents,” and became a well-respected, “prominent property owner and philanthropist.” Others were not as fortunate, such as the numerous Chinese women who languished as slaves or indentured sex workers after arriving from China by sea, often in horrendous conditions.

Brave Hearted is told in 18 expertly-researched chapters, complete with maps, notes, and a select bibliography. Although the book is not image-heavy, it does contain a handful of photographs, including one of “Handcart Pioneers” (pg. 196), people who headed west pulling what they owned themselves with a hand cart; a promotional image of Olive Oatman (pg. 231), who became famous for her time among the Mohave; Biddy Mason (pg. 284), who is described above; and others, some of whom remain anonymous/unknown.

Brave Hearted is one of the better books I’ve read about women and the American West, if not the best. Which is to say I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the topics discussed herein. As always, happy reading.

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1000 Design Classics by Phaidon

Phaidon’s revised and updated 1000 Design Classics (2022) is as entertaining as it is educational, bringing together the visual depictions of 1000 designs and their brief histories. For those of you familiar with social media, you might imagine a well-curated, expertly-researched feed of objects, from everyday wares, such as cutlery or various types of chairs, to more obscure items, like the Mercedes-Benz Type 300 SL and other vehicles, and everything in between, complete with wonderful, full-color photographs published into a book. Although I don’t make a habit of likening books to social media, flipping through this title was not unlike scrolling through a well-organized Instagram feed, with each entry being its own tidy standalone post. But the comparison stops there because this book is tangible, and, like many nonfiction art and design books, bulky and heavy–a coffee table book that perhaps one day will become a classic in and of itself!

1000 Design Classics is organized chronologically, beginning in 1663 with the Zhang Xiaoquan Household Scissors and ending in 2019 with the Bata Stool. Each entry falls within one of 20 categories, including: accessories; cameras; clocks and watches; electronics; furniture; glassware; household items/homeware; kitchenware; lighting; luggage; music/audio; packaging; sport; stationery and office accessories; tableware; telephones; tools; toys and games; transport; and utilities. An entry’s category is signified by colorful tabs on the edges of the pages for quick reference, with the legend at the beginning of the book.

In keeping in spirit with the way the book is organized, I’ll discuss selective contents in chronological order, except for a few things that, to this day, their designers remain unknown. I chose the following objects either because I like the way they look, their histories are interesting, or simply because they are familiar to most people, thus hopefully familiar to you.

Jigsaw puzzles, which date back to 1766, have a somewhat surprising history, especially because they are so widely available today (even through the library’s “Library of Things” collection, which contains a wide variety of things that may be checked out). They were first introduced by a London-based mapmaker as a tool to teach geography to children. The term “puzzle” was coined in 1908. The 1900s also saw the introduction of jigsaw puzzles for adults. Expensive to make, they were at first accessible by only the “well-heeled” members of society, with mass-production not making them available to everyone until the Great Depression.

The Pocket Measuring Tape came about in 1842. It was patented by James Chesterman (1795-1867) when he was only 25 years old. He founded the Chesterman Steel Company, which fashioned “high-quality measuring instruments, especially tapes, calipers and squares, exporting its products to the US.” It’s interesting to think of the design of tools that, in turn, help us to further the field of design, whether it be the precision designing of our built environment or commonplace everyday objects. The 1800s saw numerous other useful designs, such as the safety pin (1849), drinking straws (1888), and the Swiss Army Knife (1891), as well as some that are more for entertainment, such as the Bolz Musical Spinning Top (1880) and the dartboard (1898).

The 1900s ushered in a plethora of designs. From Dixie Cups (1908), which ended the era of communal drinking vessels, and the Ford Model T (1908), to the Apple Macintosh (1984) and a wall-mounted CD player (1999), it is the most expansive century of those covered in the book. One of my favorites is the US Tunnel Mailbox, which was engineered by Roy J. Joroleman. Prior to this design, rural mailboxes were made of whatever empty thing people had that could be attached to a pole. When the design was approved (1915), it was not patented “in order to encourage competition between manufacturers.” Other favorites from the 1900s include the Ticonderoga Pencil (1913), the pint glass (1914), the Chemex coffee brewer (1941), the pendant lamp (1947), and numerous styles of furniture, especially that of midcentury.

Phaidon doesn’t let us forget that the 2000s brought some classic designs, too! The iPod (2001) and the iPhone (2007) made their debuts, as did the Spun Chair (2007), which, I can attest, is as fun as it is spun. Although we do not have one at the library, you’ll find them downtown at the Harry M. Cornell Arts & Entertainment Complex. No doubt more designs from the 2000s will be added to future editions of this book as well.

Scissors, jacks, and Moleskin notebooks, all designed in the 1800s, as well as the whisks and disco balls of the 1900s have unknown designers. Some designs were hilarious, such as the Snurfer, a sort of snowboard, that came out in 1965, and others, such as egg cartons (1966) are particularly useful.

A library-related design that I’m fond of is the Kickstool. Designed by the Wedo Design Team in 1975, it’s a stool that can be kicked along by foot yet provides a stable platform when weight, such as a standing person, is placed on top of the stool. As stated in the book, the Kickstool is “an emblem of the librarian’s and archivist’s trades.” In fact, I keep one in my office!

I recommend this book to anyone interested in design and/or the histories of the objects therein. If you’re looking for a book to keep atop your coffee table for a few weeks, then I’d recommend it for that, too. Whether your eye is caught by the wares of centuries ago or by a more present-day design, I encourage you to check out Phaidon’s 1000 Design Classics.

As always, happy reading.

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Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle by Jody Rosen

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in one of the last generations of people whose childhood was spent off-screen and, for me, mostly outdoors and often riding a bicycle. I recall being quite young and riding all over whatever neighborhood or town we lived in at the time. From that young age through my mid-teen years, not only was riding a bicycle fun, but it was a means of transportation, and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it symbolized independence. Specifically, freedom from my folks! I don’t mention this to harken back to the so-called good ol’ days, but to say that spending so much time on two wheels certainly was a good time. And one that I’d like to make more time for in adulthood. Which is exactly why I picked up Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle. Somehow, making time to read about bicycles seems easier than making time to ride them (which, as Rosen points out, is a privilege in and of itself).

Rosen’s approach is nonlinear. In his prologue, he opens with the “eye-popping” art nouveau bicycle ads of the 1890s, which depict bicycles among the stars, and goes on to discuss the ideas of bicycles in popular culture, which, as it turns out, haven’t changed much. For generations, we’ve fantasized that bicycles are “otherworldly” and could take us to the moon, from the ads of the 1890s to popular mid-century stories, from that famous scene in E.T. to the heights of BMX biking, and beyond. Rosen writes that these fantasies “bespeak a primal desire to cast off the bonds of gravity, to speed away from Earth itself.” When riding, he says, “You’re in another world, an intermediary zone, gliding somewhere between terra firma and the huge horizonless sky.”

Although Rosen does, in fact, tell us of the history and development of the bicycle itself, it’s his cultural and political commentary, memoir, and travel writing that appeals to me most. He reminds us of the controversies surrounding early cycling, particularly for women, and of how bicycles were initially meant for the wealthy, but also details how they can become “equalizers” of opportunity. He discusses what goes into building a bicycle, including the laborers who mine for the raw materials (e.g. magnesium, zinc, titanium, etc.) and the workers who harvest rubber, as well as “the exploitation of child bike factory workers.” He links decades of activism, including the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, to bicycles and cycling. He tells us of how bikes were militarized, with the armed forces of every major European nation having bike battalions by the 1880s!

Two Wheels Good contains so much information I fear that my review is somewhat like the book itself; that is, nonlinear.

Rosen describes how, in the United States in the 1950s and 60s, bikes were likened to horses when marketed, such as with the Gene Autry Western Bike (which featured a rhinestone studded frame), Bronco, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Juvenile Ranger models. Perhaps thought to be a leftover from the horse-bike rivalry days (which was a hoot to read about). Rosen writes about the “bicycle window” at St. Giles’ Church in Buckinghamshire, England, and even includes a chapter on his personal history with bicycles. Worth mentioning, too, is the “Graveyards” chapter, as, in it, he tells of (unexpected) underwater bicycle graveyards. Readers also learn of stunt and trick riding, which is a whole world in and of itself.

As for the history of the development of the bicycle, I’ll leave you to it other than to share with you the many words used throughout hundreds of years to describe bicycles: the Devil’s Chariot, velocipede, hobby-horse, pedestrian curricle, swiftwalker, accelerator, perambulator, dandy hobby, dandy horse, dandy charger, walking accelerator, pedestrian carriage, and, one of my favorites, the Laufmaschine (which is German for running machine).

Although I’m not so delusional as to think of my younger years as the “good ol’ days” of free-range bike riding, I am so delusional as to think that I’ll get back to using my bike (rather than my vehicle) as a mode of local transportation. Inspired by Rosen’s artful descriptions of bikes (as machines, as artwork), mine now hangs by my front door. Sure, I may pass it up more often than I pick it up, but I aspire to change that and I’m doing my best. In the meantime, I’m thankful to be among those who have the privilege of making that decision.

Two Wheels Good is, indeed, good. I recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the incredibly interesting and diverse history and mystery of the bicycle, as well as the world’s reactions to it.

As always, happy reading, or, in this case, happy riding.

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Book That Joplin’s History Needs Doesn’t Exist Yet

This is a review of A People’s History of Joplin, Missouri. However, this is less of a book review and more of a nonbook book review — mainly because the A People’s History of Joplin, Missouri doesn’t exist.

At least not that I know of. At least not yet.

This isn’t to say we don’t have numerous wonderful books about the history of our community — we do. Popular contemporary local history book titles include:

  • The Best of Joplin (1999)
  • Joplin Souvenir Album (2000)
  • Joplin Keepsake Album (2001)
  • Murwin Mosler’s Gift to Joplin (2005)
  • Murwin Mosler’s Joplin in the 1940s (2015)
  • Now & Then & Again: Joplin Historic Architecture (2009)
  • Postcard History Series: Joplin (2011)
  • Images of America: Joplin (2013)
  • Joplin Memories: The Early Years (2014)
  • Greater Joplin Through Our Eyes (2016)
  • Joplin’s Connor Hotel (2021)
  • and Tom Connor: Joplin’s Millionaire Zinc King (2021)

Plus, we have titles based on topics one might consider niche, such as criminal histories, mysteries and hauntings. Historic local history book titles include A History of Jasper County, Missouri, and Its People (1912), The Story of Joplin (1948) and Tales About Joplin Short and Tall (1962).

Although this list is not comprehensive, I mention it because these are among the titles I heartily gather for people when they ask for books about local history.

I emphasize “books” because there is so much history in our community that is not published — at least not done so in a tidy format that I can check out to someone when they walk through the library’s doors. When people ask me for books about local Black history, local LGBTQ history or local women’s history, for example, they are disappointed because there’s nothing for me to gather for them to check out.

Part of my role at the library is to help collect and preserve materials that tell the story of our community’s history. Although we have all sorts of local history materials, if one were to look only at books published about our community’s history, as one often does, they might say our collection lacks diversity or representation. In fact, this very thing has been said to me on more than one occasion.

What I’m getting at is that it’s important that a community’s history — its story — be told and represented in voices and from perspectives as diverse and varied as the people who live, or have lived, there. Historically, marginalized voices are often found in nonbook materials, if at all.

From a professional viewpoint, as both a librarian and historian, this is problematic.

Why mention this now? And why here, with a nonbook book review?

Because this is Joplin’s 150th year, our sesquicentennial. Our birthday is later this month, on March 23. Oodles of fantastic celebrations and events are planned for our community, and legacy projects are in the works.

At moments like this, people say we have a rich history. Indeed, we do, but it would serve us well to remember that not all of the richness that makes up the history of who we are as a community has been fully acknowledged, much less written about, preserved or made accessible as part of our legacy.

Does this mean a book titled “A People’s History of Joplin, Missouri” written by the people for the people would be a fix-all? No, but I like it for the title. Do I have the answers to what I and no doubt others see as problematic? Again, no, but I believe that we as a community do, and I’m willing to be a part of the conversation.

As always, happy reading.

Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian by Ellen Jovin

It seems to me that grammar is one of those things that people love, hate, love to hate, or hate to love. No one just sorta likes, nor just sorta dislikes, grammar. Author Ellen Jovin is no exception; she obviously loves grammar. So much so that she, along with her husband, Brandt, has traveled nearly all 50 of the United States (as well as farther afield) setting up the Grammar Table, a sort of makeshift reference desk, where Ellen answers grammar-related questions and Brandt films for an upcoming documentary.

It all started in 2018 when Ellen unfolded the first Grammar Table near her New York City apartment building, offering passersby a haven for expressing their grammar woes with an opportunity to ask questions in “any language,” as indicated on her sign. Yes, any language! Before schlepping a grammar table around the country, Ellen earned a BA in German studies from Harvard and an MA in comparative literature from UCLA, as well as studied twenty-five languages for fun. Impressive, to say the least.

Unlike more formal treatises on grammar, Ellen’s approach is conversational, thus making it a more comfortable read than other grammar-related titles. Arranged by topic, each of the 49 chapters within contains vignettes of real-world exchanges she’s had with strangers. Through dialog, and sometimes debate, we learn the fuss over the Oxford comma, the differences between commonly misused words, spelling, texting grammar, punctuation, and much, much more.

My favorite chapters are those covering the Oxford comma (of which I am a fan, though it’s more of a stylistic choice than not); those explaining the differences between commonly misused words, such as farther/further, affect/effect, and lie/lay; the one on appositives, particularly how clearly she explains non-restrictive versus restrictive; and the chapter entitled “The Great American Spacing War.”

Ellen also touches on the differences of dialect. West of the Mississippi, words like ‘cot’ and ‘caught’ tend to be pronounced the same, while east-coasters distinguish between the two when speaking. Others include ‘stalk’ and ‘stock,’ or the names ‘Don’ and ‘Dawn.’ According to Ellen, and Merriam-Webster, the latter is correct.

Like anything else, language changes over time, which readers are reminded of throughout the book. Take the so-called spacing war, for example. Many folks of a certain age (let’s say 40+) grew up learning to put two spaces at the end of each sentence. Nowadays, it’s more common to put only one, with two seeming outdated. Interestingly, most publications have always used only one, which makes me wonder why we ever used two to begin with. I fall on the one-space side of this argument.

I appreciate Ellen’s perspective on possessive apostrophes, though I don’t always adhere to it myself. When making a singular name that ends with ‘s’ possessive, such as Russ, she uses “s apostrophe s” rather than an apostrophe at the end of the name. These days, either is correct, but Ellen says, “I add ‘s to almost all possessive singular names, regardless of what they end in, It keeps my life simple and, in my mind, logical.” She further reasons that it’s because she, like all of us, actually says the extra syllable even when it’s not written, so it may as well be written. Fair points, indeed.

Admittedly, I’m often stumped by when to use ‘affect’ versus ‘effect.’ Sometimes, I avoid the situation altogether by using a different word. As it turns out, this is not uncommon.

Although I didn’t find anything particularly surprising in the “Labyrinthine Lists” chapter, I’m intrigued by Ellen’s suggestion that we in the US start writing our dates as written elsewhere. That is, day-month-year. Why? Because, as Ellen expertly points out, it would “tidy” up our sentences by eliminating the need for semicolon usage when listing dates. Okay!

For me, part of what makes the grammar table (i.e. this book) so successful is that it travels. It would be much less interesting if it was in the same place all the time, with Ellen answering the same sorts of questions asked by people who speak similarly. I enjoy the roving nature of it all.

Other aspects of Rebel with a Clause I enjoy (besides the punny name) are the illustrations and “Quizlets” at the end of each chapter. Both are fun ways to not just learn about grammar, but to interact with it while doing so.

If you love, or even hate to love, grammar, then this book is for you. I also recommend it for those who would either like to improve their grammar or have a refresher. But if you fall into the hate or love to hate grammar camps, then you might steer clear of this one.

As always, happy reading!

Reviewed by Jill Halbach, Post Art Library Director

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Bicycling with Butterflies by Sara Dykman

Full disclosure: I chose to review this book because author Sara Dykman is visiting the library. Better yet, you’re invited! Join us at the library on Tuesday, September 27th for Dykman’s presentation about her new book, Bicycling with Butterflies, which, plainly stated, recounts “[her] 10,201-mile journey following the monarch migration.”

Seriously, she rode 10,000+ miles on a bicycle from Mexico to Canada and back to travel with the beautiful, threatened monarchs. Further interesting is that she’s headed back to Mexico, though on motorcycle this time, stopping here in Joplin (among other places) along the way, to again follow the monarch butterflies to Canada and back.

Sara Dykman works in amphibian research, is an outdoor educator, and, as a handful of her trips illustrate, an adventurer. She’s walked from Mexico to Canada, canoed the Missouri River from source to sea, and cycled over 80,000 miles across North and South America. She founded beyondabook.org, “an adventure-linked education project that connects real-time adventures to classrooms [that creates] opportunities for real-life learning [that] inspires students to push their limits and explore the planet.” Through her adventures and projects, Dykman hopes “to empower young and old to dream big.”

Dykman begins by sharing how her idea of cycling the monarch migration came about. Like most ideas, it started as a seed that sprouted into something much larger and full of life. A simple desire to visit the butterflies at their overwintering grounds (in Mexico) morphed into a full-fledged plan to accompany them on their migration, via bicycle. But she didn’t just hop on a bike and go. She spent a year planning, researching, and otherwise preparing for the adventure. As she wrote in the first pages of her book, “Eventually, there was nothing left to do but start.” And start she did.

Like the monarchs, Dykman’s journey began and ended in El Rosario, Mexico. She arrived there in January 2017, though she (and the butterflies) did not head north until March. A wonderful map illustrates the basics of their route. March, April, and May took them up north through Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota. June carried them farther north, then eastward across Michigan and Canada, reentering the United States on the east coast in July. Late July through August took them westward then south, crossing New York, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, then down into Kentucky. September swept them westward across Illinois and Missouri, then started them on their homestretch south. October and November took them farther south, through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mexico, back to their starting point in El Rosario.

Dykman’s upcoming visit will not be her first stop in Joplin. She stopped here, as did some of the monarch butterflies, in October 2017, on her way back south to the starting point. She pedaled into Joplin under cover of night and stayed over at local master naturalist Val Frankoski’s house. Like Dykman, Val cares deeply for the monarchs and has worked tirelessly, alongside others in our community, to plant milkweed and otherwise provide a habitat for and raise awareness about the monarchs and their migration, as well as their importance. This work, along with Dykman’s visit, culminated in a mayoral pledge, which declared April through October 2017 as the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge Days in Joplin (http://joplinmo.org/1001/Mayors-Monarch-Pledge).

While here, Dykman presented to 1,000 enthusiastic school children, as she describes in her book: “Val saw me hopeful, telling kids about the joy of monarchs, adventure, and science, and how everyone can be a part of the solution.” After Joplin, Dykman pedaled off to nearby Neosho, Missouri, before heading farther south. She wrote that she “left Joplin just as [she] had arrived, in the cover of night.”

Now, about the book’s arrangement and layout (which is one of my favorite things to include in reviews, as I think it’s important, particularly in nonfiction). As one might expect, this book is organized chronologically, recounting Dykman’s journey starting in January 2017 through November of that same year. Each chapter begins with the number of days it is during the migration, as well as the dates and the miles covered. For example: Days 142-153 / July 31-August 11, Miles 5518-6005. For this particular stretch, that’s about 40 miles a day, which, to my surprise, takes cyclists about 4 hours to complete (according to Google, that is). Still, that’s a lot of mileage, especially day after day after day.

Bicycling with Butterflies is as much a 10,000+ mile memoir as it is an account of the monarchs’ migration. In addition to recounting the actions and observations of, as well as her interactions with, the butterflies, Dykman describes her exchanges with those she meets along the way, some more positive and inspiring than others. I like that she doesn’t hold back, that she doesn’t weed out the less-than positive aspects of the narrative. Moreover, I appreciate her social commentary.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in adventure stories, the environment (specifically, saving it), the monarch butterflies, and memoir. A word on Dykman’s writing: excellent. She has a keen eye for drawing parallels between us and the world in which we live. If you’re not able to join us for her upcoming author visit, then I encourage you to check out her book–literally!

As always, happy reading.

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The Happy Inbox by Maura Nevel Thomas

I have over 3,000 emails in one (of four) of my work-related inboxes, with at least a few hundred of those being unread. An informal, off-the-cuff poll of sorts of a handful of colleagues and friends revealed inboxes that ranged from containing only 17 emails (Congratulations!) to 20,000+, with 39, upwards of 6,000, and 10,000+ being the in-between numbers. That’s a lot of emails, folks. And most folks, like me and the majority I “polled,” have inboxes full of oodles of emails. 

It’s no wonder then – regardless of whether the amount of emails in your inbox falls in the tens or tens of thousands range – that exorbitant time is spent on reading, writing, and sorting electronic correspondence. Frankly, it’s overwhelming! Fortunately, practical advice is offered in Maura Nevel Thomas’ The Happy Inbox: How to Have a Stress-free Relationship with Your Email and Overcome Your Communication Clutter, a book that’s part of her Empowered Productivity series.

Before getting practical about cutting the email clutter, a word about the publisher. Published by Simple Truths, this book, like other of their IGNITE READS titles, is meant to be read in an hour or less. An hour or less for what’s essentially an email self-help book is just about right, especially when considering time spent reading this book is less time spent contending with the inbox. All books in the IGNITE series, including the three Empowered Productivity titles, are readable in less than an hour, written by an expert, and fall into the “trending business and personal growth” categories. 

Now, let’s talk about email! Arranged with an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion, Thomas starts by saying that “our biggest productivity hurdle today might just be our communication–our crazy inboxes, our constant phone notifications.” She goes on to discuss how today’s professionals are in a constant state of “task switching” due to being tethered to our emails, phones, and social media. 

Imagine: You’re working on a project that requires lengthy, in-depth attention. Your computer starts to “ping” with incoming emails. Your phone starts buzzing with work-related text messages. Your (work-related) Facebook, Instagram, and other social media accounts blow up with likes, comments, and messages. Perhaps you don’t have to imagine. Thomas describes this as “communication overload” that leads to what entrepreneur Henry Poydar dubbed “communication debt.” 

According to Thomas, the first step of getting out of communication debt and regaining control, while being active and intentional rather than reactive, is to get your email under control. It’s helpful to have an understanding of how our inboxes impact our productivity (“attacks” is the word she uses), as well as the different types of emails we receive, before assessing our habits. Thomas describes a “skim and skip” behavior that is, admittedly, how I (and likely most people I know) check email. Then she tells us why that’s not effective. Foremost, “your inbox is for receiving messages, not storing them.” She further discusses how to make use of filters, unsubscribing from unwanted robomail, and how to create controls in your email application that would better help you stay on top of things (e.g. emails from certain domains could be automatically filtered to your trash folder). 

Most of us tend to think of email as an in-between task, something that takes time away from “real work.” But, Thomas argues, email is real work. It’s not meant to be something we give partial focus to, but something that we have to allow time for and address in a thoughtful manner. Afterall, our board members, bosses, colleagues, customers, friends, etc. took the time to craft the email. The least we could do is give it our focused attention so that we may keep and/or strengthen our commitments. This is, however, easier said than done, especially on a jam-packed schedule and, these days, it seems everyone’s schedules are jam-packed. Nonetheless, I think recognizing email as real work is an accurate, if interesting, perspective.

In chapter two, “Being Reactive vs. Being Responsive,” Thomas discusses what we shouldn’t do with email, such as marking or flagging messages to come back to: “It’s not efficient to read the same email more than once.” Another tactic to avoid is leaving your inbox open so that new messages distract you from what you’re working on. She admits that if you’re accustomed to constantly checking your email – and many of us are – that it’ll be challenging to break that habit, especially if we’ve trained people to believe they’ll get an immediate response from us. (And if we have, then Thomas suggests we retrain them.) She offers advice on “reviewing” email, how often to review, and how to avoid getting stuck in “review mode.”

Chapter three discusses processing email in “done for now” fashion, meaning you don’t have to do all of the tasks associated with your emails, but take the steps to get them out of your inbox. Thomas outlines the specific steps necessary to process your email effectively–the TESST method: “Take immediate action; Empower others and yourself (delegate); Suspend it to your task list to take the required action later; Store it for future reference; or Trash it.” She describes each step in detail and includes a flowchart to better illustrate how to “Put [Your Emails] To The TESST.”

Chapter four offers advice for how to manage specific types of communication, such as email vs. text, team communication, phone, etc. and when to handle them (i.e. during business hours vs. outside of business hours). This chapter also touches on email composition and best practices. 

Rather than deal with email management, chapter five discusses another drain on most professionals’ productivity: meetings. Thomas offers advice on how to kindly decline meetings that are not necessary, better prepare for meetings that are, setting goals and agendas, and choosing the right time of day, deciding who should attend, honoring the clock, and post-meeting tactics. 

Although this is not typically the type of book I would read, I thought it could prove helpful in my professional life. Although I think that putting these tactics into practice would, in fact, be helpful, I wonder whether it’s practical – possible even – to take the time necessary to implement them. Thomas promises us, however, that the time it takes to implement is well worth the more efficient productivity level and, perhaps most importantly, a largely stress-free relationship with communication overload that betters the work/life balance. If you’re a professional experiencing communication overload, perhaps even burnout, then I recommend this title, especially since it’s not a lengthy read. Speaking of, I better get back to my emails. 

As always, happy reading.         

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A Culinary History of Missouri by Suzanne Corbett and Deborah Reinhardt

One of my favorite things about traveling is experiencing the unique food and drink of the places I visit. To be honest, I like that as much, in some cases more, than site-seeing. In Missouri, you don’t have to go far before coming across breweries, distilleries, Kansas City barbeque, St. Louis Italian, Sedalia’s State Fair food, wineries, and much, much more. Although it’s less of a “where to eat travelogue” and more of a history proper, authors Suzanne Corbett and Deborah Reinhardt take us on quite the journey in A Culinary History of Missouri: Foodways & Iconic Dishes of the Show-Me-State.

We begin in colonial Missouri with our first European settlers—the French. According to the authors, “Unlike other American Colonial groups, Missouri’s French defined themselves through their food ways.” They made mud ovens in which to bake bread from wheat they grew and milled. The enslaved Africans who arrived with them introduced okra and gumbos into their food culture.

Food itself aside, it was important to Missouri’s French colonists to maintain their food customs, including table settings and cookware. The table was always set! And cookware was largely the same in poor and wealthy households, featuring kettles, pots (iron, tin, copper, wood), baking pans, pudding molds, pepper mills, utensils, etc.

To grow food, they created common fields, which were not unlike today’s community gardens, though a bit more involved. In these fields, people cultivated a variety of row crops. Some of the fields, such as the one in Ste. Genevieve, are still visible today.

Food was very much tied to holidays and tradition. For example, the King’s Cake, “a fanciful cake enriched with butter, incorporating aromatic spices, ground nuts, and fruit glaze” was baked to celebrate Twelfth Night. As it goes, a bean was placed in the batter before the cake was baked. During the Twelfth Night Ball, the King’s Cake was served to all the gentlemen and whoever found the bean in their cake was proclaimed king and got to choose a queen. This celebration is carried on today at the Gateway Arch Museum in St. Louis. Each year, they welcome the public to their annual Twelfth Night Ball.

Another food-related holiday event takes place annually in Ste. Genevieve. La Guignolee, “Missouri’s original New Year’s Eve,” is a celebration in the streets, taverns, and cafes of the Historic District that features dancing, singing, food, and drink. Like the Twelfth Night Ball in St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve’s La Guignolee is open to the public—ring in the New Year like it’s 1769!

The authors take us linear from the 1700s into 1800s Missouri, when the English and Scotch-Irish, and their enslaved African Americans, “arrived from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Illinois.” Their specialty? Curing and smoking hams. In fact, they were so good at curing and smoking hams that “Missouri became and remains one of the few states included in the American Ham Belt.” Yes, that’s a thing—the American Ham Belt. Portable soup, a sort of predecessor to bouillon, is also of this era. It was a bone broth boiled down to a gelatinous paste then dried and cut and could be reconstituted with water.

We visit Arrow Rock Tavern, which was established in 1834 and is the oldest continually operating restaurant west of the Mississippi River. Soups and stews were its most common fare, with occasional special dishes, such as fried chicken. Fantastically, Arrow Rock Tavern still serves fried chicken daily.

The authors bring to light how food and the introduction of new food to an area can change, or re-establish, food production. For example, when Turkey Red wheat was introduced to Missouri by Russian immigrants in the 1870s, it “revitalized milling operations” when two men bought the old community mill, rebuilt it, and produced “Queen of the Pantry Flour,” which became very popular. It’s interesting to think that if Turkey Red wheat hadn’t been introduced to that area, the mill would have, like so many others, fallen into disrepair and likely eventually been torn down.

I didn’t realize Missouri is home to big-name food brands, such as Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix (which began as Pearl Milling Company Pancake Mix, the namesake which it returned to in 2021 “in an effort to make positive progress for racial equality”) and Saltines. Also, the Golden Delicious apple was discovered and developed in Louisiana, Missouri. Other food discoveries originated in Missouri, too, such as burnt ends in Kansas City, and the first bread slicing machine in St. Joseph.

The railroad had a tremendous impact on food, helping to overcome “regional limitations” by significantly reducing the time it takes to move food, thereby “making more food accessible and affordable.” Moreover, as passenger service increased, so did the demand to dine while in transit. Hence, the dining car (which was preceded by buffet/refreshments cars, not unlike those used by airlines today, though they failed to appease travelers’ appetites).

The Rockcliffe and Garth Woodside mansions, both of which are on the National Register of Historic Places in Hannibal, Missouri, offer a sort of breakfast reenactment in honor of Mark Twain: “Elegant breakfast served in a style that Twain would have approved.” Visitors may also dine at the Mark Twain Dinette, a circa 1940s diner near his boyhood home.

Interestingly, we learn about much more than the history of food in Missouri. We learn, too, about the history of our culture and our people. Take, for example, Crown Candy in north St. Louis. Opened in 1913 by best friends who emigrated from Greece, Crown Candy Kitchen is the city’s oldest operating soda fountain. (And, though it’s not mentioned in the book, I hear they have good BLTs!) Jazz, politics, and sports are among the cultural aspects discussed by the authors.

A culinary history of Missouri would not be complete without touching on Missouri’s breweries and wineries, of which Missouri has (and has had) plenty. The authors discuss German settlement of central Missouri and the “grape lots” that came to be in that area, which lead to the establishment of Missouri wineries. Breweries in St. Louis, as well as other areas, are highlighted, as well as the impact of prohibition on alcohol-related establishments throughout the state.

Not only does this book serve as a culinary history of Missouri, but a cookbook, too. At the end of each chapter, you’ll find the recipes referenced. Here are some that caught my eye: 1830 Chicken Pie, Cowboy Beef and Beans, Saltine Cracker Pie, Fred Harvey Railroad Cole Slaw, and Pioneer Chili.

As always, happy reading and, in this case, happy eating.

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Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Pity Comic Sans, the font that people love to hate. Developed by Vincent Connare in the mid-1990s, Comic Sans is what author Simon Garfield describes as “type that has gone wrong” in his book Just My Type, an engaging history of type (which, these days, the average person refers to as a ‘font,’ but more on that later).

Connare designed Comic Sans as a reaction against the perceived formality of Times New Roman. Specifically, as a new typeface for Microsoft Bob, a user-friendly software program designed for people who didn’t use – or were frightened of – computers. Connare believed that Times New Roman didn’t mesh well with other elements of the software, such as its “accessible language and […] appealing illustrations.” Ultimately, Connare’s new type couldn’t be worked into the package. Guess what? Microsoft Bob failed. Not long afterward, Connare’s Comic Sans was released in another software package that indeed became popular.

Then, after being included in Windows 95, Comic Sans was everywhere. So much so that people got sick of it. Like, really sick of it. Garfield tells us of Holly and David Combs, a couple who made an anti-Comic Sans website and sold “Ban Comic Sans” merchandise. It’s not necessarily that the Combs thought Comic Sans had no place in the world, but that it needed to be put back in its place. This seemingly ubiquitous hatred of Comic Sans is not unlike how people love to hate Merlot–they know little about its complexities, nuances, and when it is, in fact, a smart, or dare I say the right, choice.

Not only does Garfield give us the history of type/fonts, but, in some cases, the histories of their creators. One such case is the grisly history (that I definitely won’t mention here) of Eric Gill, whose typeface Gill Sans appeared in 1928 as “one of the twentieth century’s earliest and classic sans serif fonts” and is still widely used today.

Speaking of Sans Serif fonts, what’s the difference between that and Serif? I’ll tell you, but Garfield will tell you better with one of the fantastic visuals that accompany the text throughout his book. Serif fonts have feet and tips, which are the serifs. Remove those and voila! You have Sans Serif.

So what about this whole typeface and type/font thing? While typeface is a certain style of lettering, fonts refer to variations of a typeface, including size, weight, and so on. Garfield writes: “Fonts were once known as founts. Fonts and founts weren’t the same as typefaces, and typefaces weren’t the same as type.” He highlights this and many other more technical aspects of typography that, admittedly, readers without a keen interest in type may not find interesting. For example, typographers once had typescales (depth scales) for measuring not only the type, but the space between it, both of which are referred to as the point size, or, for typographers (and printers, as in printing presses) these measurements are grouped into picas.

“DIY” is one of my favorite chapters because it introduced me to the John Bull Printing Outfit, a DIY typographic kit released in the 1930s. It was both creative and educational and, to me, looks and sounds like loads of fun (Hello, eBay!). Garfield goes on to discuss other methods of personal printing, from Letrasets to typewriters to floppy disks, ending the chapter saying that “well-printed” materials are “fast becoming heritage,” yet “typefaces – both their preponderance and ingenuity – have not suffered a similar decline in fortunes.” He writes further that perhaps we have too many.

I particularly appreciate how easy-reading this book is. Although I didn’t learn this till 250 pages in, the book is set in Sabon, which is known for its readability. Perhaps my sharing this with you is somewhat of a spoiler, but I have good reason for doing so. That I thought the book was easy-reading before knowing a particular font was chosen to achieve just that illustrates how much of a connection we have between text – not just what it says, but how it looks – and the way we process information and, more generally, the world.

Literally every printed word was someone’s decision to use a particular typeface or font. The newspaper (or screen, if that’s your style) that you’re holding in your hand to read this review is but one example. Whether we realize it or not – or like it or not – the way that things look impact the way that we interact with them and fonts are no exception. Have you ever been put off by some fonts and not others? Made choices as a consumer based on fonts and labels? Sure you have, as have I.

Garfield reminds us that, like anything else, fonts have rules. Though he’s not necessarily opposed, he wonders “to what extent do rules stifle individuality and creativity?” (Good question.) I’ll leave you with a few so-called rules mentioned by Garfield, though he attributes them to Paul Felton: “Thou shalt not apply more than three typefaces in a document;” “Remember that a typeface that is not legible is not truly a typeface;” and “Thou shalt not use only capitals when setting vast body copy.”

As always, happy reading.

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The Midwest Survival Guide: How we Talk, Love, Work, Drink, and Eat…Everything with Ranch by Charlie Berens

Oh, howdy. If you’re reading this, then you likely live in the American Midwest (or was forwarded this review by someone who does). Perhaps you recognize “Oh, howdy” as one of the myriad of ways we Midwesterners say hello. According to comedian and author Charlie Berens in his book The Midwest Survival Guide: How we Talk, Love, Work, Drink, and Eat…Everything with Ranch, other informal greetings include “Mornin’,” Yallo,” “Beautiful day,” “How are ya,” and, one of my favorites, “Oh, hey there.” Uniquely Midwestern language is but one topic covered in Berens’ guidebook.

Before getting too far afield on the prairie, however, it’s worth noting which states are considered the American Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. This is not to say that a Minnesotan “Oh, howdy” will sound like a Missouri “Yallo,” or that anyone living outside of a particular region of Ohio will know what the heck a tree lawn is, but those 12 states make up what’s commonly known as the American Midwest (and what the United State Census Bureau refers to as Region Two).
Berens starts us off with a twelve-question “How Well Do You Know the Midwest?” test before getting into the basics. You needn’t worry about your results, though, as each score leads to “this is the right book for you”–you can’t go wrong! After the basics and language, we mosey along to the people, driving, setting, goings-on, college life, being there, food & drink, and junk drawer sections of the book. Also included you’ll find an intermission – that is, a Midwest Gallery – and exercises, bucket lists, recipes, sidenotes, how-tos, and more.

Need to know what to do when you hit a deer? See page 87. Curious about the difference between Deviled eggs and the Devil? See page 211. Pages 202-04 introduce us to over a dozen different types of “weenies” and their distinguishing features. Plan your monthly yardwork calendar with the help of pages 103-06. Learn all about “Midwest nice,” history, values, sports, drinking games, and, yup, you guessed it, more (than perhaps you’d ever thought you’d like to know, but you’d like to) about all-things Midwestern.

Throughout his book, Berens shares family memories with us – fishing trips, Grandpa Bob, Midwestern holidays, his first car, etc. – that are wonderful anecdotes to what seems a truly Midwestern upbringing and lifestyle. But he didn’t set out to be a comedic spokesperson for the United States’ middle child. Prior to pursuing comedy, he worked in journalism, and he’s also a musician and podcaster. It was on a comedy tour in LA that he realized his Midwestern shtick resonated with audiences from across the country. He posits that among the reasons why the Midwest resonates is “because the Midwest has largely been underrepresented, or falsely represented in pop culture” and that we’ve “been flown over culturally,” and, welp, I agree.

When I first plucked this book off of the library’s shelves, I didn’t know what to expect or whether I would, in fact, read it. Within minutes, I was sharing it with others. A colleague immediately put it on hold. I read a few pages to my (very Midwestern mother, who lives in Ohio) over the phone and we laughed so hard we cried, especially at “The 12 Steps to Saying Goodbye.” As it turns out, my 13-year-old stepson follows Berens’ Midwestern shenanigans on Youtube, which I learned only after he absconded with the book as soon as I brought it home. All of this to say that this is a hilarious read and, indeed, it resonates, seemingly regardless of age.

Having lived in the Midwest all of my adult life (and nearly all of my life, full stop), I realize that it’s too easy to take our uniqueness for granted. Greetings, sayings, long goodbyes, and the like that we Midwesterners hear on a daily basis, such as, “Ope, sorry,” “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” and “It’s not the cold, it’s the wind,” are, uniquely, us. Sure, I’m reminded of that any time that I step outside of my Midwestern comfort zone, but it’s nice to be reminded of home while at home.

Aside from making us laugh, Berens also gives us a sort of survey of Midwestern culture – books, fairs (county and state), films, food, museums, politics, and sites to see. Not to mention the entertaining cartoons, charts, illustrations, lexicon, and photographs. Check it out! And, as always, happy reading.

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