Tag Archive for: nonfiction

His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine by S.C. Gwynne

Word association with “airship” probably yields responses ranging from “Goodyear Blimp” to “Hindenburg.” Perhaps there’s also a vague sense that airships had their greatest run in popularity during the early 20th century, transatlantic crossings and all. In His Majesty’s Airship: The Life and Tragic Death of the World’s Largest Flying Machine, S.C. Gwynne unfurls this period with a white-knuckled briskness. Entertaining as it is edifying, it recounts many moments that left me in near disbelief.

An early chapter entitled “Brief History of a Bad Idea” pretty much sums up airships in the main. First, they were filled with an explosive gas: hydrogen. Helium was a known alternative, but its extraction was in the nascent stages. Case in point, in 1905 the “world’s supply of helium…remained on a shelf at the University of Kansas in three small flasks.” Second, airships were notoriously difficult to fly. Wind speeds, along with constant gas expansions and contractions, required constant ballast and lift adjustments.

Even with these substantial detriments, Gwynne notes that lighter-than-air travel was still seen as a viable consideration, especially since heavier-than-air travel (the airplane) was literally just getting off the ground. In the early 1900s, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin ushered in the era of rigid airships (dirigibles, or “big rigids”), eventually captivating the German public. His Zeppelins must have been a grand sight, all eyes on the cigar-shaped airships floating overhead, each over 400 hundred feet in length.

Gwynne says that Count Zeppelin’s worldview was “more feudal kingdom than Europe of La Belle Époque.” This is telling in that World War I looms, with Germany growing increasingly militaristic. These new airships were seen less as travel vessels and more as a means to drop munitions in times of war. In fact, German schoolchildren were taught a song that included the verse “Fly, Zeppelin! Fly to England! England shall be destroyed by fire!”

Still, Zeppelin’s company wanted to showcase its airships’ travel capabilities. In 1910, a handful of passengers embarked on what was supposed to be a three-hour luxury flight. What the flight actually did was underscore the unavoidable problem with airships: navigating through storms is harrowing, if not impossible. A storm tripled the flight’s duration, often sending it flying backward, with the crew finally admitting to passengers that they had no idea what to do.

German airships decidedly did not destroy England by fire during World War I. Quite the opposite. They were easily shot down. Given this, it’s somewhat puzzling that Great Britain would vigorously pursue its own airship program. Yet it didn’t take long before its own airship program would astound, for in 1919 a British airship crossed the Atlantic Ocean (twice). To add perspective, Lindbergh made his famous solo flight in 1927.

Gwynne provides many tales of derring-do associated with these airship flights, all with the backdrop that a mere spark from static electricity could send the ship ablaze. The flights included wild altitude spikes that left most crew members scrambling for footing, let alone controlling the ship. Given the vast catalog of mechanical errors, it’s amazing that the ocean’s vastness was traversed at all. Regardless, to many a Brit, the successful to and fro flights were evidence of English pluck and resourcefulness.

Ten years later, Lord Christopher Thomson, holding the fantastic title of Secretary of State for Air, sought to navigate Britain’s immense imperial skies via airship. In Cardington, England, he spearheaded the building of the R101. At 777 feet it was the world’s longest airship to date. Millions of cubic feet of hydrogen were held within gasbags made of cattle intestines. Riggers working within the cavernous hangar would either sing or hum as a safety precaution. If workers on the ground noticed that the riggers above were carrying on with high-pitched voices, they knew to alert them that they were slowly being asphyxiated by an odorless gas leak.

The whole enterprise was a boozy affair. Workers of all stripes consumed vast amounts of spirits throughout the building process. When R101 was brought out for test flights, it was docked atop a mooring mast, over one hundred feet high. One night, selected guests were invited aboard for drinks and a tour of the ship. As the drinks flowed, winds tussled the moored ship. At the end of the night, some of the more intoxicated guests believed that they had actually flown.

Thomson, a Savile Row-clad chap, pushed R101’s designers and builders to be ready for a 1930 flight to India. As the date neared, both engineers and crew alike knew the ship was not ready. It was too heavy to sustain lift for such a long flight. There were precious few mooring masts between England and India, so it had to stay aloft. Thomson pushed ahead anyway. He had a schedule to keep. A state dinner in India was timed in conjunction with his landing in India, plus one in London upon his return.

It’s unclear why he forged ahead in the face of these concerns. Thomson had spent so much of his career striving. Would a successful flight lead to his becoming viceroy of India? He had also spent so much of his adult life trying to impress a Romanian princess: Marthe Bebesco. Would a post in India bring them closer? Even Thomson’s best friend, Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, was confused as to why the flight went forth.

In 1930, Thomson and 47 others perished aboard R101 en route to India. They didn’t even make it to Paris. The growing popularity of radio made the fiery crash a world-wide mass media event. Gwynne provides a thorough investigation of the R101 crash, piecing together what little is known and making a convincing case as to why it crashed then and there. What was known at the time of the crash: no amount of future swashbuckling was in store for the British airship program.

Upon seeing R101 just outside its hangar, Gwynne notes that one British observer stated that it looked like an “ambitious toy.” I thought something similar years ago when I saw the Goodyear Blimp, remarking that it looked like an overgrown party favor. But it’s also a reminder that history is full of ambition and folly. Thomson’s predecessor remarked that Thomson possessed the “sin of impatience.” Hard to argue against that. He will be forever tied to the R101 disaster. Yet we also learn in Gwynne’s fine book that Thomson was also instrumental in bolstering the Royal Air Force, an entity that would prove essential in thwarting Nazi attempts to destroy England by fire.

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Review by Jason Sullivan

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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Star Wars Fun

Titles Reviewed:

LEGO Star Wars in 100 Scenes by Daniel Lipkowitz

The Padawan Cookbook: Kid-Friendly Recipes From A Galaxy Far, Far Away by Jenn Fujikawa and Liz Lee Heinecke

Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary–The Ultimate Guide to Characters and Creatures from the Entire Star Wars Saga by David West Reynolds and James Luceno

Star Wars Everyday: A Year of Activities, Recipes & Crafts From A Galaxy Far, Far Away by Ashley Eckstein

Officially, Star Wars Day is observed on May 4, as in “May the Fourth be with you.” In my family, however, it’s Star Wars Day everyday–mostly because my brother is a superfan who can tie just about any day and any thing back to the world of Star Wars. Why limit yourself to one day when there is an epic space saga to explore!

While searching for resources to celebrate the ongoing holiday, I ran across several titles that go beyond the usual fiction and graphic novel rehashing of the movies. Here is a quartet of nonfiction books tied to the Star Wars universe.

I’m a big fan of the heavily illustrated, informational books published by Dorling Kindersley (DK). Known for their clean layout with a focus on bright, engaging illustrations accompanied by easily digested, explanatory text, DK books offer an accessible entry to a multitude of topics. Star Wars: The Complete Visual Dictionary–The Ultimate Guide to Characters and Creatures from the Entire Star Wars Saga by David West Reynolds and James Luceno is a prime example. It offers the standard DK presentation of a 1-2 page spread on each entry consisting of full-color photos on white background, accompanied by informative summary paragraphs along with detailed captions and sidebars. The book provides comprehensive coverage of characters, creatures, and concepts from the films accompanied by a short glossary. What I like about the DK layout is that it accommodates whatever I have time or am in the mood for which can be anything from a targeted search to random browsing to a deep dive. I can treat it like a reference book or enjoy it as light reading. This title is great for both the casual and hard core Star Wars fan.

LEGO Star Wars in 100 Scenes by Daniel Lipkowitz, also a Dorling Kindersley publication, employs the same helpful visual focus. It is exactly what it claims–100 key scenes from Star Wars films (original and prequel trilogies) enacted in LEGOs. The book’s tagline is “six movies…a lot of LEGO bricks” for a reason. Full-color photos of LEGO sets and minifigures include speech bubbles of dialogue or self-referential text. Brick icons offer insight into LEGO sets related to the scene at hand. Sidebars offer commentary from C-3PO as an ongoing comedic bit. LEGO Star Wars in 100 Scenes is a fun title for elementary ages and up. There’s something here for everyone–LEGO builds, plenty of minifigs, and humorous, sarcastic asides (think family-friendly Mystery Science Theater 3000 commentary). Lots of fun for LEGO or Star Wars buffs!

Another entertaining title for elementary age and up is The Padawan Cookbook: Kid-Friendly Recipes From A Galaxy Far, Far Away by Jenn Fujikawa and Liz Lee Heinecke. It’s full of do-able recipes for a variety of ages with differing levels of kitchen experience and adult assistance. Both the content and presentation are enticing with colorful borders and line illustrations throughout along with jauntily displayed color photos for nearly every recipe. The book is divided into eight sections labeled to mimic Jedi Trials with a helpful glossary in the back. Each recipe lists prep time, cooking time, yield, and dietary consideration codes plus sidebars imparting a range of information about ingredients, techniques, culinary terms, food science, and tidbits from the Star Wars Universe. A handy measurement conversion chart and kitchen tools list round out the helps. The recipes themselves are colorful and entertaining whether it’s the frothy blue of the Bantha Milk Slushie (butterfly pea flower powder for the win) or the adorable Butter Chewies (butter mochi topped with toasted coconut and icing to resemble Chewbacca) or the bright Ahsoka’s Jelly Cubes (orange, blue, and white gelatin bound together and sliced) or the Sarlaac Shake (chocolate milkshake with a mouth and tentacles of pie dough rising from the top). The Padawan Cookbook has a positive, can-do vibe about it that encourages fun in the kitchen.

The Star Wars Universe has its share of hard core fans, and Ashley Eckstein, author of Star Wars Everyday: A Year of Activities, Recipes & Crafts From A Galaxy Far, Far Away, is no exception. A self-proclaimed superfan from childhood, Eckstein grew up to be the voice of Ahsoka Tano in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. When she says, “Star Wars is truly a lifestyle,” she means it. Arranged by month over the course of a year, the book offers crafts, recipes, party ideas, and mindfulness activities in each chapter. Each entry includes a brief description tying it to the Star Wars Universe. Many of the entries seem conventional approaches such as Hoth Chocolate Snowballs (white chocolate hot chocolate bombs), Bantha Suprise Burger Bites (tempura meatballs), Carbonite Clay Masks (home spa facial masks), Ewok House (decorated bird house), Cardboard Box Podracer (for kids to drive and adults to make), Planet Paper Lanterns, and a felt Boba Fett helmet stuffie. However, some activities appear to be a bit out of the ordinary including the Cloud City Dinner Party featuring the recipe Betrayal With A Side of Rice. (This is why I love nonfiction–some things you just can’t make up.) This, along with the incorporation of lifestyle activities, is certainly a new take on the Star Wars Universe for many fans although it is likely to attract the attention of a new audience. While some entries may seem a reach–budgetary or otherwise–there are also neat possibilities. Like the movies themselves, this title is interesting fun that can take itself a tad too seriously on occasion. Star Wars Everyday lends itself to an adult audience due to its approach, presentation appeal, and difficulty level of several activities.

Whether Star Wars is your jam or it’s another fandom, the Library has you covered! May the Force be with you!

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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Rikers: An Oral History by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau

A perk of landing at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport is the resplendent rollout of the Manhattan skyline. As you descend into the maw of a great city, you’ll find it outside your left window. Taking off from LaGuardia, you’ll find another famous—albeit grimmer—NYC scene, this time just outside your right window: Rikers Island.
There’s exactly one narrow bridge leading to the East River island. And if you’re on it, leaving Queens, it means you’re heading to New York City’s largest jail complex. It’s been in operation for almost a hundred years and has, over the decades, become known by its prisoners as the “House of Dead Men.”
In Rikers: An Oral History, journalists Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau show what life is like inside the jail by sharing the experiences of both prisoners and staff. While the inmate population is constantly in flux, the average prisoner staying around four months, violence is a constant. Regardless, whether the account is via a prisoner, a correctional officer, or a warden, taken all together, it’s a tale of horror.
Before a new prisoner is sorted into a specific jail (there are ten jails total for men, women, and adolescents), joining a total prison population of around 5,000, there’s the intake process. A recurring theme for new arrivals, including staff, is noticing the abject filth. Prisoners are placed in “holding pins” that are filled to capacity and then some. If you actually get a seat, consider yourself lucky. One former inmate states that “it’s crazy,” a pin filled with 60 prisoners, some of them on their third day of waiting for a jail assignment; plus, some are dope sick in a jammed-pack pin where the plumbing has long since stopped working.
Once in a jail, it—as with any jail—is a world unto itself. If you happen to be a member of a gang that has number superiority on a tier, life will be easier for you than for someone who’s not similarly gang affiliated. This is especially true when it comes to phone access. Throughout the book there’s a consistent theme: gangs control who gets to use the phones, not the officers. In fact, historically, some of the officers have been gang members themselves. In the summer, there’s the risk of heat exposure in some cells. (One inmate died from the heat, a jail official actually saying, “He basically baked to death.”) There’s a chapter on the prison’s food, which I wish I had skipped.
This book is supposed to be a tough read, forcing us to face what incarceration actually looks like. And when it comes to reading about the treatment of the adolescents (and the mentally ill) inside Rikers, it almost shatters your belief in humanity. According to accounts, incarcerated teens were often forced to fight each other, which was unofficially sanctioned, if not outright encouraged, by guards. The adolescent jail became known as “gladiator school.”
One teen was held in Rikers for three years without a trial. (His parents couldn’t afford to make his bail.) Once released, the trauma of the experience was the stated reason for his suicide. What was the alleged offense that led to his lengthy incarceration? He stole a backpack.
It’s important to keep in mind that most of the prisoners in Rikers have yet to have their day in court. In fact, many wait so long for a court date, it’s faster to plead guilty, whereby credit for time served allows for an expedited release. Of course, doing so means they now have a record that will absolutely be used against them in the future. On the revolving-door nature of the system, one judge says, “I feel like I’m handing out a life sentence to these people, but I’m doing it thirty days at a time.”
One older ex-cop from Barbados refused to plead guilty, stating that he was charged with “steering.” His arrest went like this. While sitting on his stoop in Brooklyn, a man approached him asking to buy drugs. The ex-cop told him that such activity did not happen on his corner, that he would have to go down to a different corner. Thus, “steering” the man to an illegal drug purchase. He refused to admit that he did anything of the sort, sitting in Rikers for two years before the charges were dropped.
Humanity is a scarce resource behind prison walls. But educational programs, especially theater and poetry courses (not surprisingly, humanities courses both) are often brief lifelines to inmates, guilty or innocent. One inmate says, “the most horrible thing about being locked up is that you are dehumanized on a daily basis. In order to navigate the experience, you have to normalize the dehumanization. You have to buy into it in order to survive. Once you internalize it, you project it outward. If you are being dehumanized, that’s how you treat other people. That to me is the essence of incarceration: having to buy into the dehumanization.”
The New York City Council voted to close Rikers by 2026. The experiences in this book certainly seem to underscore that decision. But there’s still the question: Then what? That’s where opinions diverge dramatically.
Until then, Rikers is a reality, and there’s still one piece of advice older inmates sometimes dispense to younger inmates. When it’s time to leave Rikers and you’re on that narrow bridge out, don’t look back. “Don’t ever look back or else you’ll come back.”

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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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.

Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks by Patrick Radden Keefe

If you peruse a public library’s nonfiction section, you’ll eventually wander into a grizzly sector: true crime. Chances are you won’t bump into me there. While “understanding” the psychoses of serial killers is laudable, I can’t shake the horrid end that came to their victims. So, I’ll usually find something else to read, thanks. Still, true crime as a subject encompasses much, and there are some gripping tales out there.

Patrick Radden Keefe knows his way through the genre, writing about political murder in Northern Ireland as well as chronicling one family’s machinations in pushing painkiller drugs that fueled an opioid crisis. His latest book, Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks, a collection of articles that originally ran in The New Yorker, hooked me straight away.

Wine fraud is a given in the wine-collecting market. Rare wine attracts wealthy collectors, which in turn begets swindlers. Keefe tells us of what happened when one billionaire was duped into buying wine that was purported to belong to Thomas Jefferson. The billionaire, Bill Koch (of Koch brothers fame), made it his mission to seek retribution, spending more for this satisfaction than what he spent on the bogus wine. Entertaining, to be sure. But, to me, Keefe’s exploration of the wine market, where fakes often best originals in tastings, is where the essay thrives.

Also, judging by his wine ledgers, Thomas Jefferson certainly liked to lean into a bottle. According to Keefe, Jefferson “might also have been America’s first great wine bore,” as evidenced from John Quincy Adams’ diary. After one dinner with Jefferson in 1807, Adams noted, “There was, as usual, a dissertation upon wines. Not very edifying.”

There’s an article on Mark Burnett, the man who brought us such television shows as “Survivor” and “The Apprentice,” the latter styling Donald Trump as an icon of business success. It’s yet another stark reminder that there are those who underscore what can be promoted and sold over what is fact. Nothing new there. However, when one assumes the presidency on this marketed foundation, we should all take pause.

Keefe writes of a Swiss bank heist and of an international arms broker. Financial scandals are unpacked, as well as an account of a man seeking justice for his brother, a victim of the Lockerbie bombing. There’s an article on a criminal defense attorney who defends some of the most heinous criminals. Her representation is not to prove their innocence; she’s trying to keep them off death row by humanizing them in the eyes of the jury. Not an easy job, that.

There’s the Dutch gangster who kidnapped Freddy Heineken (of the beer dynasty) for ransom. A more violent gangster is profiled in Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former leader of a brutal Mexican drug and money-laundering cartel. Despite their fame, the daily lives of both gangsters read as positively banal, with Guzmán having to change up residences every few days to evade capture. It’s the opposite of glamorous. He and his family tediously schlep their belongings from house to house. (There is, however, an occasional mad dash through a sewer.)

Perhaps the most chilling article concerns Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist who was denied tenure at the University of Alabama. At the next faculty meeting, she shot and killed three coworkers. At first, the story appears to highlight the pressures of academic life. But there is so much more to Bishop’s life story. As dangerous as, say, Guzmán is, his violence emerged from a violent upbringing. With Bishop, however, the source of her murderous ways is not so easily explained.

The last article features Anthony Bourdain, the chef turned writer (a talented one) and television travel host. Keefe states that part of Bourdain’s popularity springs from his circumventing “homogenized tourism.” As viewers, Keefe notes that we are given a “communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous.” In spite of Bourdain’s image as a rebel, Keefe found him to be “controlled to the point of neurosis…He is Apollo in drag as Dionysus.”

Since these articles were published over a span of 15 years, there are addendums at the end of each. Doubtless, many readers already know that Bourdain committed suicide and that Guzmán is serving time at the supermax prison in Colorado. With each article, Keefe’s writing is a reminder of the value of longform journalism: giving complex stories the space to be thoroughly told and appreciated.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

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The Art of Bob Mackie by Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross

I’m a firm believer in the power of sparkle and shine to brighten up the short, dark, chilly  days of winter, especially those after the holidays. It doesn’t have to be much–just a little something to perk up the doldrums before spring appears on the horizon. Today’s book meets those criteria for me, presenting an amusing diversion to the post-holiday “blahs”. 

The Art of Bob Mackie by Frank Vlastnik and Laura Ross absolutely brings the bling to the realm of coffee table books. Its deep blue front cover is framed by shimmery, turquoise flames and sprinkled with tiny silver bubbles. Title and authors are printed front and center in shiny silver Art Deco font. The effect resembles so many Mackie creations–cut outs wreathed by wavy strips of opulent fabric suspended in crystal-sprinkled illusion. Just looking at the sumptuous cover injects a little shot of fabulous into my day.

Known to some today as a clothing merchant on QVC, Bob Mackie is a veteran costume and fashion designer with a career spanning six decades. He made his mark in television with stints designing for film, Broadway, pop stars, and Las Vegas shows. His signature style blends daring and humor and sparkle for looks that range from campy to dazzling.

A native of southern California, Mackie briefly attended college then art school before leaving to work in Hollywood. He started his career in 1961 as a freelance sketch artist at Paramount Studios under the famous costume designer, Edith Head. The next year he moved to 20th Century Fox, sketching for its costumer, Jean Louis. While there, Mackie created sketches for the designer’s dress worn by Marilyn Monroe at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party (the same dress worn by Kim Kardashian to the 2022 Met Gala). In 1963, Mackie began working as an assistant under costume designer Ray Aghayan on The Judy Garland Show. From there the TV work grew to a full partnership with Aghayan focusing on variety shows and musicals and setting up Mackie for his solo career and best-known successes, weekly variety shows for Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher.

Mackie’s career exploded while working with Carol Burnett and Sonny & Cher in the late 1960s and 1970s. He created everything from spangled, feathered, over-the-top concoctions for Cher’s musical numbers to the infamous “curtain rod dress” (now in the Smithsonian) for Burnett’s parody sketch of Gone With the Wind. For Carol Burnett’s variety show alone, he designed 60-70 costumes each week for 11 years roughly totaling 17,000 outfits–an amazing feat of imagination and stamina. His weekly television work expanded to include other media and performers. Mackie’s work has been nominated for over 30 Emmys (winning 9), 3 Oscars, and has won a Tony. In 2019, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He continues to work today.

The Art of Bob Mackie is a chronological journey of Mackie’s career loosely divided by sections for each performance type he designed for–film, TV, stage, music. The book claims to be “the first ever comprehensive and authorized showcase of the legendary designer’s life and work, featuring more than 1,560 photos and sketches–many from Mackie’s personal collection.” It’s large although not overwhelmingly thick, and every inch is packed with drawings and photographs (often of the same costume, showing its evolution) in an eye-catching layout. Both types of illustrations, large and small, are tucked around the text or arranged in larger spreads. While Mackie’s more well-known works, such as his creations for TV variety shows and for pop icons Cher, Diana Ross, and Elton John, receive more space there is good coverage of interesting (and sometimes surprising) work throughout his career. 

There is plenty to see in this book; the authors don’t skimp on Mackie’s visual contributions. It’s a great title for anyone interested in costume design or fashion illustration as it provides a window into the designer’s process and artistic skill. For example, it’s easy to follow the course of Mackie’s collaboration with Cher and its subsequent effect on her career as she moved from ‘70s-influenced streetwear to his beaded, feathered, and sometimes shocking attire. Regrettably, the brief text’s quality doesn’t match that of the illustrations. The written content is cloying with dated, cheesy, overly chatty asides and descriptors that sound like they come from a mid-twentieth century Hollywood gossip magazine. Read it for the factual basics and ignore the rest. That’s OK–this book ultimately is all about the amazing art. Take a deep dive or come back to it for smaller bits, it works either way.

Whatever you think of his work, The Art of Bob Mackie offers a look at the career of one of America’s influential costume designers. You can find more information on this topic and so many more at the library where there’s something for everyone. Happy reading!

Review written by Beth Snow, Teen Services Librarian

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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