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DK’s Big Ideas Simply Explained Series

It’s likely that, at one time or another, you’ve perused a guide by DK, the British-based publisher of illustrated reference books in 60+ languages. This multinational publisher has numerous series that cover a seemingly endless list of topics, such as arts and culture, health and beauty, language learning, religions and ideas, transportation, and much more. Regardless of which series or topic, their books tend to be thorough (some would say dense), visual (some would say overstimulating), and full (some would say jam-packed). Generally, there’s a lot happening – text, charts, timelines, images/photos, quotes, illustrations, micro-bios, etc. – at once on any given page. In my experience, people either adore or abhor them, with little opinion in between. Me? I adore them!

My most recent DK adventure took me through three titles from their Big Ideas Simply Explained series: The Art Book, The Economics Book, and The Philosophy Book. Rather than discuss each book individually, I’ll treat them collectively. I might mention, too, that these are but three of 20+ topics covered in this series. Others include astronomy, business, history, literature, movies, politics, science, and more. Two people are covered so in-depth that entire volumes are dedicated to them—Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.

Each of the three that I reviewed are around 350 pages, with similar layouts: a 3-4 page table of contents (which is itself illustrated); a 4-6 page introduction; six sections that cover the big ideas in that field; and, in the economics and philosophy books, a directory and glossary, while the art book contains a glossary and, rather than a directory, portfolio and quotation sources. The books are, as is typical of reference-style nonfiction, larger and somewhat heavy, thus more of a coffee table or lap book than one you’d want to accidentally drop on your face when holding it above, reading before bedtime. They are textbook-ish (which I like).

This series lends itself well to either reading the whole book (though I did not read each from cover to cover), reading bits and pieces here and there, or reading section by section (and not necessarily in the order that they are presented). Of the three, I spent the most time with The Art Book. Like in the other books, each section begins with an introduction that includes a timeline through a particular period in that subject. For example, the “Romanticism to symbolism” timeline spans 1800-1893, beginning with Francisco de Goya’s The Naked Maja (which he got into trouble for) and ending with Edvard Munch’s ubiquitous The Scream.

Unique to The Art Book, however, is the “Portfolio” at the end of each section, which lists influential artists/works for that period. The “Portfolio” equivalent in The Economics Book and The Philosophy Book is the “Directory” at the end of the books that list people important to those fields. Additionally, “See also” cross-references are listed, which helps connect theorists and philosophers not only to one another, but to other aspects of the ideas that they represent in a manner that’s different than how they’re contextualized within the text proper. You could, if you wanted to, just read the directory listings and their associated “See also” pages to learn about certain people or theories somewhat thematically (rather than chronologically).

DK promotes this series as a “graphic and quote-led approach.” Indeed, it is. What I like about this approach is that the graphics and quotes – some of which take up whole pages – break up the text nicely while vividly illustrating the points discussed. The “In context” text boxes, which are found throughout the series, are especially helpful, as are the biographical text boxes, which offer a short list of key works.

I realize that I’m writing more about how the books may be used than how they read. For me, usability is part of what makes books like these good. If the organization of information within is not approachable, or accessible in different ways, then the book is less usable. Although I haven’t thumbed through all the books in the Big Ideas Simply Explained series, I assume that they’re comparably organized. Sure, there’s a lot going on from cover to cover – illustrations, graphics, photographs, quotes, asides, and such – and, I admit, that may become distracting, overwhelming even, but, overall, I find the books in this series very usable. And I look forward to more!

As always, happy reading.

Houseplants for All: How to Fill Any Home with Happy Plants by Danae Horst

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve impulsively purchased houseplants only to get them home and realize that perhaps I’m not able to provide an environment in which they’ll thrive. Yet I try. As of this writing, I have about 30, most of which do well enough alongside a few that sort of languish. A languishing plant is a sad sight to behold, so I sought a solution and found it in Danae Horst’s Houseplants for All: How to Fill Any Home with Happy Plants.

In her introduction, Horst admits, “Unfortunately, enjoying plants and keeping them happy do not always have a direct correlation” and she discusses her experience with collecting houseplants, unknowingly making mistakes, and watching them struggle or die. Like many of us who’ve watched our houseplants die slow deaths, Horst began questioning her plant-parenting abilities. After making a move with a handful of houseplants that she managed to keep alive, she continued caring for them and learning more about them, eventually having the “Aha” moment that she needed: “When I began to choose plants based on what they needed rather than just how I wanted my home to look, I found my plants seemed happier and healthier.” Aha, indeed!

In Houseplants for All, Horst debunks what she calls the “back thumb myth” and shares with us the essentials we must understand to be able to choose plants based on their needs rather than just our preferences. Also, she teaches us how to assess our space and what we’re able to provide, as well as advice for creating environments in which plants will thrive. Plus, she includes design tips and plant profiles throughout the book, which are accompanied by bright, beautiful photographs. Although a lot of information is packed into fewer than 200 pages, its arranged and presented in an approachable manner.

In section one, “the right plants for you,” we learn about the misconceptions and truths of light and humidity and how they impact the health and happiness of plants. Particularly helpful is the explanation of how light comes in through our windows and the definitions of the different types of light we’ll find within our homes. Also, Horst further defines the light terms we encounter on plant care cards. For example, “partial shade or mixed shade” for outdoor plants is equivalent to “a mix of direct sun and bright indirect light” in houseplants. Suggestions for how to measure light within your home, whether by observation, with a light meter, or an app on your phone, are included. Section one concludes with humidity and light strength “quizzes” that are less like quizzes and more like questionnaires with flow charts to help us measure and determine how much of each we do (or do not) have in our homes so we may plant accordingly.

Section two, “environment profiles,” is my favorite section of the book, as it breaks them down into five easily understood profiles: bright and sunny space, lower light space, humid space, indoor-outdoor space, and shifting light. Each profile begins with the pros and cons of having that type of space. For example, a pro of a bright space is that you’ll have more plant options, but you’ll need to water more often because they’ll dry out quicker. Each environment profile goes on to include the different types of light you might encounter within that profile, as well as specific suggestions for which plants will do well in that type of space. Detailed plant profiles, care, placement, and styling tips are also a part of each environment profile, as well as other tidbits.

Section three, the final section of the book, is applicable to caring for plants in all environment types, as it covers the “plant care essentials,” from the basics of choosing healthy plants at the store to various methods of watering and propagating them. “Plant Problems” and “Pets and Plants” are great subsections within this section.

Horst concludes her title with a list of further resources and a reminder that “plant care is a journey” and that we’ll no doubt make, as well as learn from, the mistakes we make along the way. In the 20 years that I’ve kept houseplants, I’ve made mistakes aplenty and learned a lot. I wish that I would’ve had a book like this back when I started my journey, but I’m glad to have it now. I recommend it to houseplant aficionados and beginners alike.

As always, happy reading.

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Good Mail Day: A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art by Jennie Hinchcliff and Carolee Gilligan Wheeler

In 2014 we, meaning Post Art Library (the privately funded not-for-profit arts organization located inside Joplin Public Library since 1981), put out a call for entry for mail art. The idea was to create a one-off exhibit of mail art received from all over the world to introduce locals to the medium and encourage their participation. At the time, I was myself somewhat new to engaging with mail art and my experience with the world-wide mail art Network – yes, that’s a thing – was limited at best. Yet there I was, helping to coordinate a mail art call for entry and co-curate the resulting show. Enter Jennie Hinchcliff and Carolee Gilligan Wheeler’s Good Mail Day: A Primer for Making Eye-Popping Postal Art.

This book differs from other mail art books that I’ve read (such as Mail Me Art by Darren Di Lieto and Correspondence Art, edited by Michael Crane and Mary Stofflet, both of which are wonderful) in that it’s not only a gallery of mail art, but a sort of mail art workshop, as the authors offer oodles of advice for how to make mail art, start a mail art project, and navigate the mail art world. Plus, it introduces readers to mail art terminology and, perhaps most importantly, mail art etiquette.

But what’s mail art? A basic, common definition of mail art (a.k.a. correspondence or postal art) is that mail art is when people send small-scale works of art to one another through the postal service, often with the package itself being considered the work of art. Frankly, that definition falls flat and fails to describe the vibrancy of this decades-long movement. In my experience, the best way to describe mail art is to hand someone a stack of it. The only sure thing about mail art is that it is, as Hinchcliff and Gilligan Wheeler write, for everyone: “Anyone can be a mail artist, regardless of skill level or style of artwork.” The mail art itself is all over the place and all mediums are welcome. (The authors remind us, however, not to send anyone anything that we don’t want to deal with in our own mailboxes, such as perishable items.)

Although mail art is for everyone, the Network, like any other, has some basic rules. Namely, that “every piece of mail art that comes into your mailbox should receive some sort of acknowledgement in return.” That is, send something back! In the mail art world, this reciprocity is known as documentation. “No returns” is another tenet of mail art exchanges, meaning that each piece you receive is yours to keep, just as each piece you send out is someone else’s to keep. I appreciate that Hinchcliff and Gilligan Wheeler tell us the rules and “Time-honored Traditions” of mail art culture at the start. It’s as if they’re telling us that if we cannot respect those rules, then we needn’t read further or participate.

Of course, there are non-Network rules that mail artists must abide by, such as those of the postal service (or services, when mailing internationally). As such, we’re reminded to become familiar with our local postal regulations and to keep in mind that mail is categorized based not only on shape, but on thickness and weight. For example, if an envelope exceeds the maximum dimensions or thickness, then it may be categorized as a package and, accordingly, require more postage. The chapter that touches on regulations also includes “The Ten Commandments of Mail Art,” “The Seven Sins of Mailing,” and “Seven Suggestions for Shepherding Your Mail Art Safely to Its Destination.” You’ll also find tips on wooing your mail carrier and becoming friends with those who work in the post office.

The bulk of the book isn’t about defining mail art or mail art rules, but about having fun and making mail art. A few pages cover turning everyday objects, such as produce stickers, wrappers, leaves, and bird feathers into mailable mail art. What to do with those old dryer sheets? Mail them! As the authors discovered, they make for durable mail art. The point is that you may creatively make use of whatever you have nearby and whatever you find laying around, like found objects, old catalogs, junk mail, etc.

Ideas for decorating and illustrating envelopes, whether ready-made or those you create yourself, are included in this title, as are other techniques, such as paper-folding, texturing, and creating patterns, as well as stenciling, faux postage and artistamps, refining your handwriting, finding pen pals, and developing your postal personality.

My old friend, Chapter 10, details how to start a mail art project of your own, including writing a call for entry, creating documentation, and developing a correspondence register, which is more involved than keeping a list or address book of mail art contacts because it has more information. For example, a correspondence register might have columns for name, address, what you received, when you received it, what you sent back, when you sent it, and any other tidbits that you’d care to include. Trust, when coordinating a mail art project, which involves sending documentation (i.e. mail art thank yous) to those who send to you, a register is handy!

“You Can Take It with You: The Traveling Mail Art Kit,” is one of my favorite chapters. In the chapter, the authors emphasize that “mail art can happen anywhere, at any time, and in any place.” Think a waiting room that you’re stuck in, when you’re on hold making a phone call, or utilizing public transportation, or some such situation. The idea behind the mail art kit is that it’s possible to make mail art even when time is limited. The “Suggested Items for a Well-stocked Mail Art Kit” list is great, though your kit may contain whatever you like. What’s in my kit varies from time to time, though at minimum it includes stamps, stationary, and a few envelopes.

Peppered throughout the book are mini-interviews with mail artists from around the world, as well as great visuals, with the book ending with a mail art gallery followed by a contributor’s list, further resources, and an envelope template. Interestingly, the authors became friends when getting to know one another through mail art after meeting at a book arts event. Thus, the mail art that they’ve exchanged is a visual account of how their friendship developed—so cool!

So, is Good Mail Day a good primer for aspiring mail artists? Indeed, as it continues to guide me through what started as a one-off mail art project in 2014 and has since turned into an ongoing project for our growing collection. At the time of this writing, we have 300+ pieces of mail art from around the world in our collection and we’re about half-way into our third mail art exhibit, which is accompanied by an active call for entry. Visit us at www.postartlibrary.org to learn more about Post Mail Art Projekt 2021: Show Me Mail Art and check out Hinchcliff and Gilligan Wheeler’s Good Mail Day to learn how to get started.

As always, happy reading. And happy mailing!

Historic Missouri Roadsides by Bill Hart

This book review is a celebration of sorts of both the Missouri Bicentennial (2021) and National Preservation Month, also known as Historic Preservation Month (May). In Historic Missouri Roadsides, author, historian, and preservationist Bill Hart takes us on a two-lane highway trip through several of Missouri’s small-town destinations, introducing us to, or reacquainting us with, what they have to offer.

Before taking us on the road, Hart breaks down the “how to” of using his book, pointing out that how long each trip takes to complete is, in fact, up to the traveler. Each stop along two-lane Missouri includes basic historical information about the place, suggestions for where to eat and stay, as well as for where to visit and what to do. Hart reminds us that these trips are meant to be leisurely rather than a race from point A to point B: “Chill. You’re not traveling on two lanes to win any races […].”

These adventures are arranged neatly into six road trips: Missouri Highway 79 / The River Road; El Camino Real; Route 100 / Gottfried Duden & the Lewis and Clark Trail; Osage Hills and Prairies; Mostly Route 24; and The Platte Purchase. Each tour begins with a summary about the trip and information about where, exactly, to start, and each town visited within a given tour clearly directs us to the next town. Although it is possible to reach some of these points using freeways, I recommend following Hart’s directions, as exploring what’s along our byways (rather than the sameness of our freeways) is the beauty of venturing out in the first place.

I feel a special kinship with this book as I start to travel about again. It’s a fantastic resource for those of us who wish to start by seeing what the places close to home have to show us. One of my favorite things about this title is that the largest city we’re guided through is St. Joseph, with a current population of about 73,400, give or take, whereas the smallest cities are only in the double digits.

Don’t get me wrong – I love visiting Kansas City, St. Louis, and other larger Missouri cities – but Missouri has much outside of those cities to show us. For example, a 1910 Beaux Arts-style post office in Nevada; the historic Hall of Waters in Excelsior Springs; a theatre in Blackwater, where productions written and directed by a local playwright are featured and locals serve free punch and cake during intermission; and landmark bluffs and other natural sites in tiny towns like Arrow Rock. We may even opt for additional “side trips” that take us into more remote areas of the State, such as Lithium, which, once upon a time, was a Victorian resort town.

Hart touches on the prehistory of Missouri, mentioning which Indian tribes traversed which areas before European American settlement, as well as tells the story of town names and sites that take their name from Native American and early European American history. He also makes mention of conservation areas, national register listings and districts, state parks and historic sites, persons of note, and more.

Not to mention the wonderful photographs, which enhance the stories of these lesser-known Missouri places. Check out the magnificent 1884 Second Empire Federal Courthouse on page 20, the picturesque view from the Fourche à Duclos Roadside Park on page 43, or the Old Dutch Hotel and Tavern’s neon sign in Washington on page 86.

It’s worth mentioning that two editions of this book are published and that the second edition is expanded to include “Destinations,” which are meant as stand-alone places to visit rather than a guided road trip. These destinations include St. Joseph, Glasgow, The Boonslick area, Fulton, Sedalia, and the Arcadia Valley.

As noted in his foreword, this book is “a travel book, a history book, a photography book, and more.” Indeed, it is all that and more. It is an opposition to what Hart describes as “Generica,” or the commodification of place and product. The fast-food chains and big-box stores found along our freeways and in our commercial districts, for example, all of which look the same regardless of locale. Hart encourages us to turn away from Generica for the uniqueness of “what lies right beneath [our] noses here in the Show-Me State.” Not only does he encourage us in this direction, but he literally tells us how to get there.

Happy trails and, as always, happy reading.

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The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman by Margot Mifflin

March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate, I encourage you to read a book written by – or, better yet, by and about – a woman. I started this year’s celebration by doing just that, with Margot Mifflin’s The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman. Admittedly, this wasn’t my first reading of this title, but my third.

Olive Oatman was born to parents who decided to settle in the American southwest as it was becoming the American southwest. Although much of the Mormonism that she was brought up with was left out of the many narratives about her life, Mifflin picks up Olive’s story at the point when it was, in fact, that very Mormonism that influenced the family’s move. Following the Brewsterite sect that broke away from Brigham Young, the Oatmans set west with others to what they thought would be a sanctuary and some sort of nation in and of itself, a nation within an expanding nation (both of which were destructive, to say the least, in their makings).

On their trek to California from Illinois, Olive’s father, Royce, broke the family away from the original Brewsterite caravan in what is now southwestern Arizona, quickly leading to the family’s demise. After an intense night “marooned on a tiny island surrounded by quicksand in the Gila River in Mexico,” the family encountered members of the Yavapai Indian tribe, who, after seemingly harmless initial contact, killed Royce, his wife Mary Ann, and four of their seven children. Lorenzo, who was all but dead after the attack, was thrown off a cliff and left to (presumably) die, while two of the daughters – Olive, 14, and a younger sister, Mary Ann – were taken by the Yavapai.

Olive and her younger sister spent about a year with the Yavapai Indians. According to Mifflin (and others), they were treated as captives, which is to say that they were treated poorly. The Mohave tribe, upon seeing the girls’ mistreatment, requested that they were traded to them. After negotiations, the girls were traded to the Mohaves, who accepted, raised, and treated them as their own. Olive spent about four years with the Mohaves; Mary Ann fewer only because she perished during a famine that they experienced.

Olive and Mary Ann were led to the beautifully described Mohave Valley by Topeka, who became their Mohave sister. Espaniole, a festival chief, and his wife, Aespaneo, became the girls’ Mohave parents. The bond that the girls, especially Olive, had with their Mohave family was strong. When Mary Ann died, both Olive and Aespaneo mourned in the traditional Mohave manner. The Mohaves gave Olive a nickname, which “confirms her acceptance within the culture; if she had been marginalized within the tribe, she would never had warranted one.” Some suspect, though never substantiated, that Olive married and had children while with the tribe.

It’s unknown whether Olive actually wanted to rejoin white society after her time with the Mohaves. It is known, however, that she had no choice but to do so once her whereabouts were discovered. The Mohave Indians were forced to return her to the whites “in exchange for horses, blankets, and beads.” Olive was upset during her so-called restoration to white society, which, as Mifflin points out, is an indication that she did not wish to return. Also, Olive never spoke ill of the Mohaves and, when the opportunity arose later in life, she went to greet and see a member of the tribe speak at an event.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Olive’s tattoo – the blue tattoo – not only because that is the book’s title, but because I am a visibly tattooed woman, though in another, vastly different, context. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by Olive’s status as a tattooed woman, as well as interested in the history of women and tattoos, which, admittedly, is what prompted my initial reading of this book (and others by the same author).

Placed on her chin, Olive’s tattoo was a very public, permanent mark – in the 1850s! – of her time with the Mohaves. Unlike some other tribes, the Mohaves did not tattoo their captives. Rather they tattooed only those who became a part of their tribe. Mifflin writes that Olive’s willingness to be tattooed indicates her willingness to become Mohave. Olive is the first known tattooed white woman in the United States, as well as the first known to profit from her tattoos. (In addition to her chin tattoo, she had vertical lines on her arms, though those were never shown publicly.) Olive’s narrative became so popular that tattooed ladies – women with real tattoos – started showing their skin in circuses and sideshows, stealing Olive’s story, distorting it and claiming it as their own, saying that they were captured and forcibly tattooed by Indians.

Olive was not like any other woman of her time. Upon her return to white culture, a man by name of Stratton wrote a (highly profitable) sensationalized account of her capture and she became a touring lecturer during a time in which it was highly unfavorable for women to work or have agency outside of the home. Eventually, Olive married a man named John B. Fairchild. In a letter to her aunt that the author includes and discusses in the postscript, it seems Olive’s marriage was a happy one. Eventually, Olive and her husband settled in Texas, where she died in 1903.

In her epilogue, Mifflin discusses Olive’s posthumous appearances. That is, her ongoing legacy in literature and television, connecting her to numerous novels and shows inspired by her story, as well as to those who tried to write themselves into her story. The author refers to this legacy as “Oatman’s Literary Half-Life” and notes, and seems disappointed, that not once in these fictional accounts is Olive reunited with her Mohave family. Indeed, it is disappointing that, even in fiction, Olive never makes her way back to the Mohaves.

I might mention that you will not find this book on the library’s shelves, but as an e-book via the library’s Ebsco eBook Collection database, which may be accessed with your library card on Joplin Public Library’s website or through their card catalog.

As always, happy reading.

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The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to The Hidden World of Everyday Design By Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt

I sort of stole this book review from my husband, meaning that I robbed him of the opportunity to review it himself as soon as I set eyes on it after his discovering and sharing it with me. The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt is as beautiful as it is brilliant. But first, who are these guys and why everyday design?

Roman Mars is the creator and host of the fascinating and entertaining 99% Invisible podcast (est. 2010). Initially, 99% Invisible was a one-man show, but has since grown into a talented staff, including Kurt Kohlstedt, who is the digital director and a producer, as well as co-author of this book. On 99pi.org, they describe the podcast as being “about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” In other words, it’s about everyday design. The premise for the book reflects that of the podcast. Now, let’s tune in to the book proper.

The 99% Invisible City is tangibly splendid, making it clear that careful consideration went not only into the design of the book, but the touch and feel of its materials. The texture and weight of its matte pages are pleasant to the touch and the embossed cover and half-sized jacket are nice features. Of special note is the cover image. Spanning both covers, several figures within the image are labeled numerically, corresponding to the legend printed inside the book jacket. I repeat: the legend printed inside the book jacket—almost too cool!

Content is organized into six chapters, each of which is further arranged into three to six sections containing short entries. I appreciate a well-organized book, especially when, like in this one, an array of topics is covered. It’s as well-researched as it is organized, with an expansive bibliography that, if you’re interested, doubles as a “further reading” list.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this a coffee table book, as it’s not glossy and oversized (or overpriced), I’d say it’s like a coffee table book in that it’s interesting to look at, makes for a great conversation piece, and is suitable for casual reading while still appealing to avid readers.

The 99% Invisible City is exactly as it claims, a field guide to the hidden world of everyday design. Like most field guides, it can be read in its entirety or in bits and pieces. I skipped ahead to chapter four – Architecture, my favorite – after reading chapter one only in part and wandering about here and there in other parts of the book. Regardless of how its read, it recalls visuals of everyday things I’ve seen and wondered “What/why is that?!”

Have you ever heard of stink pipes (think obelisks)? According to Mars and Kohlstedt, obelisks and “other seemingly innocuous sculptures in cities around the world” are, by design, meant to ventilate their sewer systems. So, if you find yourself near such a structure, then you might give the air a sniff to see whether the sculpture is functional or purely aesthetic.

The standardization of utility codes, such as those one sometimes sees spray painted on the ground, came into being after a massive explosion killed/injured at least two dozen people in Los Angeles, California, in 1976. Today, the American National Standards Institute maintains the codes: red means electrical, orange signals telecommunications, yellow identifies combustive materials, pink is for “temporary markings, unidentified facilities, or known unknowns,” and so on. Though not hidden but generally unnoticed, these markings are, by design, meant to make our communities safer.

The authors also explore how regulations may influence everyday design. Perhaps this is best seen in architectural landscapes. For example, the British government once implemented an individual brick tax, thereby causing manufacturers to create larger bricks or builders to use other building materials. A similar window tax, again in Britain, caused people to board up or otherwise cover up their windows. The effects of these taxes can still be seen (or, as in the case of the windows, hidden) today.

Planned failures (e.g. breakaway posts), municipal flags, inflatable figures, towers, foundations, graveyards, water, technology, illumination, property markers, manhole covers, and so much more are covered within the covers of this book. The 99% Invisible City is everyday design presented and written about in an extraordinary manner. What’s more, it’s all remarkably illustrated by Patrick Vale. Though “for all you plaque readers and curious urbanists” is inscribed on the title page, this book has something for everyone. Check it out!

As always, happy reading.

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How the Post Office Created America: A History by Winifred Gallagher

I fancy sending and receiving mail: cards, letters, mail art, packages, and postcards. I delight even in receiving unsolicited consumer catalogs and other junk mail that make for great collage material. In a word, mail is fun. At its inception, however, what came to be our country’s postal service wasn’t meant for fun, but for a “secure, independent communications network so that [our country’s co-founders] could talk treason and circulate the latest news without fear of arrest.”

Readers interested in the history of the United States Postal Service or the history of the founding of America will find Winifred Gallagher’s How the Post Office Created America: A History fascinating. Throughout the book, Gallagher draws parallels between the development of the postal system and that of our country, illustrating that one could not have happened without the other.

In addition to needing a way to “talk treason,” our forefathers desired a way to disseminate information to the public in post-Revolutionary America. Prior to this time, mail, which was then the only means of remote communication, was a privilege rather than the given that it is today. Those who lacked access to this communication network also lacked access to information. The postal service was increasingly relied upon as a means to educate the public about our country’s development and encourage their participation. Newspapers are among the first materials to be mailed to the masses. In fact, it was common for printers to double as postmasters. The distribution of newspapers via the postal service helped democratize access to information similar to how the post democratized access to communication.

But it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen overnight. Gallagher expounds on the challenges that beleaguered the post. Transportation, for example. The earliest mail carriers were post riders. Men, usually, though not always, who carried the post on horseback and rode tirelessly to their destinations or to hand the mail off to their relay (not unlike a relay race). This was especially dangerous in a mostly unsettled country thick with uncertainty and thin, at best, with the infrastructure required to carry out the service.

Post roads were mapped to connect the country, as well as to shape its settlement. Mail was increasingly delivered by stagecoach (so called because it would stop at various intervals, or stages, along the way). By 1813, Congress authorized steamers to carry mail and, in 1823, “all waterways” were declared post roads. The development of the postal service is closely tied to that of the railroad with a sort of public-private partnership that led to the Railway Mail Service, which, until aviation came along, was the most efficient method of transporting the mail. According to Gallagher (and she makes a great case), the postal service single-handedly supported the aviation industry by subsidizing its infrastructure.

Transportation wasn’t the mail’s only challenge, however. Another was safety. Not only that of postal employees, but of the mail itself. Especially during the post rider, stagecoach, and railway days, it was not uncommon for the mail to be stolen. When mail traveled via railway it did so in wooden train cars that were placed behind the engine car, which meant that it was susceptible to fire, endangering both employees and the mail.

Finances were yet another challenge. In the early days of the American postal service, it was not the sender who paid for personal correspondence, but the recipient. One went to the post office (because that was the only option prior to home delivery) and asked for their letters and paid only for those that they wished to receive. Not surprisingly, this was costly. Not to mention the accumulation of unwanted letters, which ended up in the Dead Letter Office (an interesting destination and story in and of itself).

The postal service did more than overcome challenges, though. It changed America’s social landscape. During the Victorian era, letter-writing became extremely popular, especially among women. So much so that post offices installed separate windows for women to pick up their correspondence so as to keep aligned with that era’s social mores (i.e. to keep the women from the men, especially because, at that time, post offices could also double as places of vice). Books about the etiquette of writing letters abounded and stamp lockets, a locket containing stamps worn on a chain around the neck, became popular, as did stamp collecting.

In her final chapter, she examines the postal service’s missed opportunity to provide the Internet as a non-profit public service rather than our current privatized for-profit system. When considering how different access to electronic communication and information might look had the post prepared for a digital future, she imagines: “They would have insisted that every post office in America become a neighborhood media hub equipped with a bank of computers that enable citizens to go online for little or no expense–a service now provided by more than sixty nations around the world, to say nothing of America’s own public libraries, where people que up or take a number for online access.”

These considerations have merit. After all, the postal service and the Internet are not unlike one another. Both came about to fulfill the need for remote communication and the dissemination of information, while helping to democratize access in the process. Interestingly, public perception of both has been, at times, similar. To wit: It was feared that mail order catalogs and buying/selling goods through the mail would destroy local businesses much like it’s feared that buying/selling goods online will do the same.

Gallagher details America’s long, winding postal road with an intriguing history that spans two centuries while skillfully supporting her claim that the post office created America. In the final words of her afterward, “Whither the Post,” Gallagher encourages us “to reflect on what the post has accomplished over the centuries and what it could and should contribute in the years to come” before deciding its future. To state it simply, reading this title has only strengthened my opinion that, too often, our postal service is taken for granted.

As always, happy reading.

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The Penguin Book of Mermaids, edited by Christina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalni Brown

The beginning of summer is an exciting time here at the library, as it marks the launch of our annual Summer Reading Program, a multi-faceted all-ages program with challenges, games, and opportunities to win prizes. Though this year is quite different than those previous – we’re nearly a week into our first ever all-virtual summer reading program – it’s exciting all the same. This year, the themes of fairy tales, mythology, and fantasy are woven into a collective slogan: “Imagine Your Story.”

Recently, I set sail with The Penguin Book of Mermaids, a collection of stories about mermaids and merfolk edited by Christina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalni Brown, both of whom are professors at the University of Hawai’i at Māoa. To be honest, it’s happenstance that I chose a title that fits snugly into this year’s summer reading theme. I chose it not for its relation to mythology, but because of my fascination with and fondness for large bodies of water. As it turns out, I’m also fascinated by mythology, at least that which is water-centric.

Before diving in, the editors introduce us to this sea of stories by providing cultural and historical contexts, asking questions, discussing the aims of the book, and examining the complexities of human/nonhuman relationships. From Henrich Heine’s “Die Lore-Ley” to “Mermaids Among Us Today,” their introduction provides an overarching critique that they maintain throughout the book with succinct introductions/critiques to most of the stories within. Also, they remind us that “Mermaid stories did not emerge as fairy tales–that is, as fictions–but as myths and legends.”

Of the sixty-plus stories included in the book, twenty make their debut in the English language, having been translated from nine different languages. The tales are organized as follows: Water Deities and Sirens from Olden Times; Mermaids and Other Merbeings in Europe; Literary Tales; and Merfolk and Water Spirits Across Cultures. The stories may be read as stand-alones and their lengths range from very short, such as a few stanzas or a paragraph, to several pages, though most are a page or two. For those who would like to dive deeper, the editors offer numerous suggestions for further reading as well as extensive endnotes.

I’m as intrigued with the editors’ introductions and commentary as with the actual stories. Perhaps more intrigued, at times, as their comments illuminate the tales in a way that encourages us to further explore and reflect on the stories we think we are familiar with through contemporary adaptations, such as The Little Mermaid, which is shared in both its Japanese and American versions.

Interestingly, these tales share common literary dichotomies and themes regardless of the culture from where they came. Good vs. evil, real vs. imaginary, soul vs. body, human vs. nonhuman, love vs. hate, courage and heroism, sexuality and gender and coming of age are some examples. The editors do well to examine and discuss these and others throughout the book, including humans’ tendency to “collectively other anything nonhuman or not wholly human.”

In a word, The Penguin Book of Mermaids is fantastic. It’s academic, cross-cultural, entertaining, and as mesmerizing as the very mermaids and merfolk depicted within.

To begin imagining your (virtual) summer reading story, visit www.joplinpubliclibrary.org. Bon voyage! And, as always, happy reading.

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101 Art Destinations in the U.S.: Where Art Lives Coast to Coast by Owen Phillips

This is an exciting book. Before discussing why, however, I’d like to give a shout out to Ridpath Club for providing this title in loving memory of their friend and former clubmate, Martha Fowles, who loved art and loved to travel. We’re happy to have the opportunity to share Ms. Fowles love of art and travel with our library patrons via this title.

101 Art Destinations in the U.S.: Where Art Lives Coast to Coast by Owen Phillips is a superb travel guide for anyone and everyone who cares about art. Admittedly, I briefly considered writing about something other than a travel guide for this review, in light of our current circumstances, but no doubt many of you, like me, are experiencing wanderlust. Plus, many of the destinations Phillips includes have a large online presence, so you can peruse digital collections and take virtual tours.

I appreciate that Phillips took a regional approach in the organization of this book: Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, South Atlantic, Midwest, South Central, Mountain, Southwest, and Pacific Coast and Hawaii. Organizing the destinations regionally rather than by type or some other method seems the most thoughtful approach.

Within each region, the destinations are further arranged by state. Thus, the next time you’re visiting Aunt Sally in Texas (South Central region) or attending a conference in Utah (Mountain region), you can easily flip to that section of the book and explore art destinations in that area.

Phillips introduces each of his 101 entries with a beautiful, colorful photograph, either of the destination itself or one of its exhibits, the name and address of each location, a well-written brief history and description of each destination, and information about nearby points-of-interest.

For example, if you’re visiting the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY, you might stop by the nearby LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton to take in the sculpture gardens, which are comprised of pieces by Buckminster Fuller, Yoko Ono, de Kooning, and others.

Another pleasurable feature of this title is that it offers a variety of destinations, such as houses, memorials, museums, parks, studios, etc., as well as represents an array of types of visual art, such as architecture, ceramics, painting, public art, sculpture, and more.

In addition to being an expertly arranged art-destinations travel guide, this book is, to state it simply, fun. It’s the sort of book that you can read from cover-to-cover or just the sections pertinent to your travel plans. My favorite way to read it is to open it at random and explore whichever entry I’m presented with.

This read-at-random approach led me to The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL, which began in the 1930s. Their collections are comprised of artworks from all eras and all continents, many of which can be viewed online at ringling.org.

To be honest, I cannot recommend this book enough. In fact, I’m acquiring a copy for my personal library. Not only it useful for traveling and armchair traveling alike, but it’s a nice conversation piece and an interesting coffee table book, if smaller than most.

Finally, I leave you with some of my favorite art destinations mentioned in the book that I highly recommend exploring online and, if possible, in person when they reopen: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR; the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO; and The Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, OH.

Take care and, as always, happy reading.

A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester

May is Preservation Month, a celebration that promotes our heritage through our historic places. As such, I’m glad to share my impressions of a preservation-related title, A Field Guide to American Houses by Virginia Savage McAlester.

I was first introduced to this book years ago, by my friend Leslie Simpson, who said, “One of the best ways to learn about the history of a community is to study its buildings.” Indeed, architecture has a story to tell. But first, we must learn to listen. Through this title, McAlester teaches us how to listen to the stories of American domestic architecture.

Spanning centuries of the development of American houses, from the 17th-century to present, this guide is for anyone interested in learning how to identify the style of American houses through architectural features, from frame and form to embellishments or the lack thereof.

Initially published in 1984, McAlester expands the 2014 revision to include an overview of the house styles built during the millennial housing boom, 1990-2008, and a section on neighborhoods that describes the ways American houses are usually grouped together. Also, the second edition provides new information based on research that wasn’t available at the time the first edition was written.

Readers may reference this book in a variety of ways, as discussed in the brief ‘How to Use This Book’ portion, which I recommend (actually) reading. For quick identification or for a sort of crash course in the basics of American houses, both the Pictorial Key and the Pictorial Glossary that follow the how-to section are helpful. Roof form, chimneys, railings, windows, and more are depicted in the Pictorial Key, whereas the Pictorial Glossary depicts common descriptive house terms as well as classical elements often applied to houses.

The first chapter is an overview of American houses, including information about style, form, structure, and neighborhoods. The seven chapters that follow go into greater detail about the types of houses found within specific styles. For example, Native American, Pre-Railroad, National, and Manufactured houses are types of houses within Folk Houses. Italianate and Gothic Revival are types found within Romantic Houses (1820-1880); Richardsonian Romanesque, Queen Anne, and Shingle are found within Victorian Houses (1860-1900); Craftsman and Prairie within Modern Houses (1900-present); and so on. Frankly, the fun is in the details rather than the overview, though the latter is the foundation for the former.

In addition to abundant depicions of architectural elements, photographic examples, and textual information, McAlester chronicles how geography, innovation, materials, weather, and more have impacted the development of American homes. Heating innovations, for example, literally shaped American houses, as did automobiles. In fact, automobiles continue to shape our homes: the space used to house automobiles when compared to a 1,000 square foot house in 1915 was 0%, which grew to 15% by 1930; to 25% by 1950; to 45% by 1970; and to 75% by the 2000s. McAlester also touches upon some of the sufferings of old houses brought on by so-called improvements.

McAlester’s book is comprehensive, including something for everyone and for anyone with a desire to know more about how our dwellings came to be, how they’ve developed over time, how we have shaped them and, interestingly, how they have shaped us. I recommend this field guide to everyone, whether the desired outcome is to simply identify the house up the street or to survey and develop a narrative for an entire neighborhood.

I might add that we are able to provide a copy of this title for checkout, rather than for reference-only, as is typical, thanks to a donation made by the Joplin Historical Society in memory of Martha Elizabeth Belk. You’ll find A Field Guide to American Houses in our Memorial Book section, which is located at the beginning of our New Nonfiction.

Happy Preservation Month and, as always, happy reading.

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