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

Find in Catalog

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

Find in catalog.

River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile by Candice Millard

The Victorian era conjures much to mind, and it’s often a word salad of Britishness: the Brontë sisters, tea and crumpets, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” It can go on and on. Conspicuous consumption had long been in place among the British aristocracy, where the finest of art was displayed to demonstrate one’s perceived cultural superiority. Now, with a vast empire flying the Union Jack, unsuspecting lands were potentially subject to British exploration and consumption. It wasn’t always about dominion. Often there was the want to learn and map what was, to them, the unknown.
And sometimes cultural hubris and genuine craving to know the world via exploration were entwined, as evidenced in “River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile” by Candice Millard. A book so expertly written, it becomes almost cinematic when read. It helps that Millard spools together material that almost sells itself. Foremost is Richard Burton, the “genius” part of the subtitle.
Born to a peripatetic British Army officer who wanted his son to have a proper English education, a young Burton experienced both the boarding school and, while living with his father at various worldly outposts, tutors. Wherever he lived, violence was a mainstay, and Burton gave it back in turn. Once he smashed a violin over his music tutor’s head. Eventually serving in the army of the East India Company, Burton cared to be anywhere but England. To the famous line “the vast (British) empire on which the sun never sets,” a young Burton sardonically added “nor rises.”
Burton excelled at languages, a tutor later stating that he “could learn a language running.” (He spoke 24 languages.) Attending Oxford University, he was insufferable to the dons. Millard notes that Burton often didn’t either know or care how others viewed him. This trait would later be of great consequence.
In 1853, and in his early thirties, Burton did the unthinkable and joined the annual pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Muslim. To the Christian world, the Hajj was full of mystery as only believers of the Islamic faith were allowed. Discovered nonbelievers were subject to the punishment of death. Millard says of Burton’s audacity for the journey, “It was an undertaking that simultaneously acknowledged what was most sacred to the Muslim faith and dismissed the right to protect it, making it irresistible to Burton, who studied every religion and respected none.”
Burton, having long since mastered Arabic, spent months dying his skin brown with henna. He didn’t have to worry about masquerading the color of his eyes. They were already about as dark as eyes can get. After meeting Burton, author Bram Stoker was so mesmerized it’s said that Burton’s look (all the way down to how Burton spoke, with the flash of the canine tooth) was his mental image during the writing of “Dracula.”
The excursion a success, and gaining him some renown, Burton set about contemplating his next exploration. It didn’t take long. The Royal Geographical Society had announced that finding the source of the White Nile would be answering one of the great geographical questions of the age. Burton, having been on the Nile only once and finding it a “double dullness” of scenery, leapt at the chance to venture into Africa’s interior, writing, “I shall strain every nerve to command it.”
Awarded the command, Burton needed additional military officers to join his party. Through a series of happenstances, Burton chose John Hanning Speke after meeting him at what today is Yemen. Speke was in many ways the opposite of Burton. Speke was firmly a member of the aristocracy. Whereas Burton was bookish and constantly preparing for his outings, Speke was decidedly not studious and seemed to live only to hunt game. But Speke had ostensible uses to Burton: an experienced traveler (by way of the army) with some surveying skills, and an excellent shot.
In 1855, as Burton and his party were commencing their trek into Africa’s interior, a Somali clan attacked their encampment. Speke was stabbed multiple times and Burton was speared in the face, the javelin going through one check and out the other. It’s miraculous they survived. A disaster, the expedition was abruptly over. More than anything, however, it was the resentment Speke developed against Burton that would have lasting significance. The impetus: During the attack, Speke stepped out and then immediately back into a tent, prompting Burton to say, “Don’t step back, or they will think we are retiring.” Speke took this as a charge of cowardice, internalizing the affront. Also, when Burton published his report on their brief expedition, he added some of Speke’s observations without sourcing them. Apparently, this was commonplace, as Speke was a subordinate. No matter, Speke started to turn on Burton.
Given Speke’s lack of knowledge concerning Africa (other than that there were hippopotamuses there he wanted to shoot), it’s surprising that Burton chose him for a return trip. It was woefully underfunded, but Burton made as many supply purchases and local African hires as possible. Millard notes that in England “armchair geographers and gentlemen scientists” were suspect of “native testimony.” Explorers knew better, however. Local knowledge was paramount. And the most beneficial hire Burton made was Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a former slave who was kidnapped as a boy and taken to India. He eventually achieved his freedom and returned to his homeland. Both Burton and Speke would go on to credit him for keeping a disparate caravan of personalities together throughout the 1856-1859 expedition.
Millard keeps the pages turning with tales of their many tribulations. In addition to crocodile-infested waters and the roars of lions at night, there were the columns of safari ants that sent the caravan into a frenzy, Burton journaling that it was “ludicrous to behold.” One night, Speke briefly lit a candle in an attempt to right his tent after a storm. He was immediately beset by black beetles. No amount of frantic gyrations could remove the swarm. Resigned to their presence for the night, and falling into a fitful sleep, he was shocked awake by a beetle burrowing into his ear. Attempting to remain calm, he tried pouring salt, oil, and melted butter into his ear. But the mandibles kept burrowing. In desperation, he stuck a penknife into his ear, killing the tormentor but also rendering him deaf in that ear for the remainder of his life. And then there were the diseases that almost killed Burton and Speke on more than one occasion.
After reaching a lake, the caravan double backed, eventually stopping to resupply. On word that a large body of water lay to the north, Speke and Bombay trekked to find it. Burton was too ill to make the journey; plus, he believed the lake they had just turned back from–but didn’t have the means to fully explore–was the Nile’s source. Reaching the southern end of Lake Nyanza, Speke was certain this was the source of the Nile.
Speke returned to England promising Burton (not yet medically cleared for sea voyage) that he would wait for him before reporting to the Geographical Society. He did not wait, and turned on Burton once and for all, slandering his competence and character. Speke eventually returned to Lake Nyanza, teaming up with Bombay once more, where they found the source of the Nile.
Although he didn’t have the scientific measurements to definitively prove it, Speke believed the matter of the Nile’s source closed, renaming it Lake Victoria. As the years passed, Speke’s vitriol spread to those who had once supported him, which is perhaps why he was goaded into publicly debating Burton, a spectacle that was sure to humiliate Speke. The debate never happened, as Speke died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound the day before the event. Whether it was intentional or an accident is an open question.
Burton would always be perplexed by Speke’s actions. Once he learned of the catalog of grievances Speke had collected against him, he said the matter could have been settled had Speke addressed him directly. Burton could be aloof, but he had thought that, given their shared hardships, he and Speke had an unspoken comradery. But Speke was all British, where being second to just about anyone was not an option. Burton would live out the rest of his days famous and never fully accepting a British aristocracy that didn’t know what to make of him.
Then, and as Millard notes, there were the Africans who were not consulted on whether Burton and Speke should explore their lands at all. Bombay, who had every reason to resist an outsider’s presence, accepted them warmly, nonetheless. And then there were the people already around Lake Nyanza, from the southern inhabitants who believed the water extended to the edge of the world to those in the north who stood and watched as the water flowed into a great river, not knowing there was a whole civilization at the other end racing to find what was already found.

Reviewed by Jason Sullivan

Find in Catalog

Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids by Scott Hershovitz

At the risk of alienating some readers right from the jump, I’ll go ahead and say that having children in your life is a blast, especially during the toddler years. My son and daughter are well past this age, but I revered being a part of their daily soaking up the world anew. All children are naturally curious of course. And all parents are exquisitely charged with introducing the world to them. It often feels just as much to our benefit as it is to theirs. For we too see the world anew and try to hold back any reflexive jadedness.
Scott Hershovitz, author of “Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with My Kids,” more than runs with his children’s curiosity: He’s teaching them how to think. Granted, when I first stumbled upon this book, I was dubious, thinking it would be too cute by half. You know, one of those “look at me as I try to learn/teach something with/to my kids and end up making a royal mess of it, all in an attempt to be humorous” books. But then I read the introduction. Hershovitz is a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan and clearly divulges his intent. “This book is inspired by kids, but it’s not for them. In fact, kids are my Trojan horse. I’m not after young minds. I’m after yours.” After reading that, I was all in.
Hershovitz maintains that all kids are philosophers not only because they ask “why” a whole heck of a lot but also from their need to know what’s in your mind. When your young daughter, for instance, asks what the color red looks like to you, she’s unknowingly carrying forward seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke’s shifted color spectrum question. She’s trying to make sense of what she sees by asking how you see it. It’s a deep question because she’s not only trying to understand her own consciousness but yours as well. As we get older, Hershovitz says we tend to stop asking such questions because we stopped seeing them as viable questions to ask. Given the difficulty—perhaps even the ineffability—of conveying what we experience, it’s understandable that we stop asking. Yet doing so trucks a price: often not understanding each other.
As a philosophy professor, Hershovitz is well poised to lead his young sons in practicing philosophy. He’s constantly asking them questions so that they have to think and reason through, well, just about everything. (A few times I thought, “Maybe ease up a little, yeah?”) But, as he said, the conversations he has with his kids are the set up for the broader topics. Thankfully, the exchanges are often humorous. (If you do pick up the book, you’ll behold a fair amount of cursing. Not only does Hershovitz admit that he curses freely, he makes the case for it. To wit: studies showing better group cohesion when cursing is allowed; also, people are better able to withstand physical pain when in the act of cursing. He has a whole chapter on language.)
In the chapter on “rights,” Hershovitz introduces a rather famous contemporary philosophical puzzle: the Trolley Problem. It goes like this. A runaway trolley car is careening down the track and will certainly kill five oblivious rail workers farther down. But you happen to be standing by the switch that can divert the car down another track. Unfortunately, there’s one worker on that track who will be killed if you, the Bystander at the Switch, redirect the trolley. What do you do? Allow five to die, or save five by actively killing one? Pose the question to whomever. I asked my teen-aged kids and found out that my 14-year-old already knew of the puzzle. So it didn’t take long for “what ifs” to fly. What if you knew the one solitary worker had a terminal illness? Would knowing this change your decision? What if one of the workers was a beloved relative (or a sworn enemy)? The broader question here is what rights do all of these workers have as they relate to your actions? “When you have a right, someone else has an obligation,” says Hershovitz. However, as we know, defining rights and obligations can be a tenuous endeavor. Yet they can’t be ignored. It’s why we debate such things as bioethics and the rules of war.
One day, one of Hershovitz’s sons confided that he was called a floofer doofer by a preschool classmate. (No one knows what a floofer doofer is. What is known, ostensibly, is that you don’t want to be called one.) While the details are sketchy, Hershovitz’s son retaliated in some fashion as he received a mild scolding from his teacher. Hershovitz did not scold his son nor lecture him about avoiding the temptation to retaliate. He has little use for the old saw “two wrongs don’t make a right.” To him, not only can the second wrong “set things right,” it probably shouldn’t even be called a wrong at all. The second wrong could, in fact, be called justice. It’s why we have a legal system, notes Hershovitz, who is also a law professor at Michigan. (He clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) He makes the case that, broadly speaking, “litigation is the best substitute for revenge.” And it can do double duty: rule against the wrongdoer and send a message to others that said wrongdoing will not be tolerated.
If this sounds basic and obvious, recall that Hershovitz is asking us to revisit concepts upon which we’ve set as our foundation, providing just enough conceptual history to add continuity. For instance, we learn of Aristotle’s thoughts on justice and Immanuel Kant’s theory on rights. This helps with understanding our institutions along with our more prosaic daily interactions. The questions start as basic, sure, but the answers are certainly not always obvious. Or, an answer may at first seem obvious to you but not to me. It’s not that I don’t understand your answer. I just have a few questions for how you arrived at the answer. And then we’re off.
As the book progresses, other traditional philosophical ideas are briefly explored, such as knowledge and truth. In the wrong hands, this thorough fare could be an arid one. But Hershovitz knows his audience and keeps it relatable. He describes, for example, how René Descartes’ theory of justified true belief once ruled the day among philosophers and for quite some time. You know something because you are justified in believing it true. But then, in 1963, a little known philosopher by the name of Edmund Gettier published a brief paper that upended this theory. Here’s my mashed-up version of his counterexample. You own a copy of “Infinite Jest” by the (great) David Foster Wallace. You’ve picked it up and read from it many times. You can even visualize where it sits on your bookshelf. Therefore, you are justified in believing that a copy of “Infinite Jest” is in your house. Indeed, there is a copy in your house. But here’s what you don’t know. Your spouse loaned out your copy to someone a few weeks ago. This someone then lost it. But then someone else just so happened to buy you a copy for your birthday (thinking you didn’t own it already) and mailed it to you. It’s sitting, wrapped, on your dining room table. Gettier would argue that you just got lucky there’s a copy in your house. But you actually didn’t know there was a copy in your house.
If the title of Hershovitz’s book sounds familiar, it comes from seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that with the absence of government, humans are back in the state of nature, where life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” And regarding government, Hershovitz makes the case that it’s not perceived oppressive governmental entities one needs to worry about (in the U.S. anyway). To him, legally speaking, it’s your employer. And there’s much else he covers, such as Cartesian dualism (back to Descartes again) and the subsequent “the ghost in the machine” derision that eventually followed.
Speaking of dualism, there’s a bit of that in Hershovitz’s approach. On the one hand, he absolutely steps back so that his sons (and others) think through an idea without undue persuasion. Yet, on the other hand, there are times when he seems to positively relish ending a debate by bringing down his tremendous intellect.
Whether you regularly engage with children or not, Hershovitz’s book is a reminder that the study of philosophy is frequently an exploration of how much we don’t know. And that’s okay. Often, through the process of learning what we don’t know, we actually learn quite a lot.

Find in Catalog

Bicycling with Butterflies by Sara Dykman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, happy reading.

Find in catalog.

The Happy Inbox by Maura Nevel Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, happy reading.         

Find in Catalog.

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World by Riley Black

It’s something we know without recalling perhaps when and where we learned it: The dinosaurs were taken out by an asteroid. (Well, the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. The avian dinosaurs—birds—made it.) The most famous of the Earth’s mass extinction events (its fifth), it happened around 66 million years ago. Without it, this very day could very easily still be in the age of the dinosaurs.
In “The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World,” Riley Black not only takes us back to the impact event but also briskly carries us forward, from the first hour after the asteroid slammed into what is now known as the Yucatán Peninsula to one million years later. She shows us just what exactly the earth’s flora and fauna experienced, and would continue to experience, during this cataclysm. While other mass extinctions may have eliminated a higher percentage of the earth’s species, it took much longer (millions of years) to do so. The Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction that Black details happened remarkably fast. It’s about as wild a ride as you can imagine: millions of years of evolution “undone in mere moments.”
Black notes that it’s important to understand the role the phenomenon known as contingency played. “Not all impacts are equal,” she says. The asteroid that smacked into Siberia about 35 million years ago was larger than the one from K-Pg. Yet it didn’t spur world-wide devastation. Impact angle and the type of rock receiving the space-punch mattered. So had the dinosaur-killing asteroid landed somewhere else on earth, conceivably the opportunities for mammals to climb atop the evolutionary ladder would not have materialized.
But it landed where it did. A “deadly crag,” it spanned about 7.5 miles across. And, traveling in excess of 44,000 mph, it was exceptionally fast. “If we were to stand at a single point and try to watch its passage, we would feel it rather than see it,” states Black. To make matters worse, it landed at a lethal 45-degree angle. There was instant vaporization where it hit coastal water. Tsunamis resulted, hundreds of feet high. Earthquakes spread. In present day Montana, dinosaurs there would have felt the impact in about fifteen minutes.
The earth, so violently shook, tossed up unfathomable amounts of dust and debris, darkening the sky. Billions of tons of sulfur and carbon dioxide were flung into the atmosphere. Then the debris started its descent, igniting fires. Any animal that could take shelter did of course. And if it could burrow, all the better. Climate change was almost immediate. Within the first day, fires engulfed the earth, a pure hellscape.
Already, just finding shelter above ground was proving futile. If an animal couldn’t dive into soil or water, it was in desperate straits. Temperatures climbed. This was a big problem for the gargantuan non-avian dinosaurs who were already prone to overheating. Black says it well and succinctly: “Evolution prepared them for the world of tomorrow, and perhaps the day after, but not for this.”
As the world burned, the debris created “a vast dome over the atmosphere.” Sunlight became scarce. This was the “impact winter,” a period of endless night. The days turned into years and then the acid rain started, slowly degrading the nutrients vegetation needs to grow.
One thousand years later the earth’s biodiversity was (surprise) greatly compromised, “shot through with gaps.” However, this created opportunities for the surviving organisms clinging to the happenstances they were dealt. Here’s one: Algae kept the oceans alive. Another one, going back to the first days after impact: The first primates could have perished (but did not of course) in the ubiquitous tree fires. (Black also notes that ferns, “a disaster taxon,” did very well during the recovery.)
One hundred thousand years after impact the earth was shaking off the coldness of winter, the forests growing higher. As we move to one million years, flowering plants proliferated, which in turn burgeoned insects. And as Black points out, such insects were a boon to primates, as they provided a source of nourishment.
Throughout the book, Black’s fascination with dinosaurs is palpable. She strikes me as a dinosaur-loving kid who grew up never having lost her wonder. And it’s as though she feels guilty they had to perish in order for her to exist and subsequently long for them. While most of us stop short of such longing, she does explain our collective intrigue of dinosaurs very well. We try to wrap our minds around the fact that such colossal creatures once ruled the earth and for such a long period of time. Whether gazing at their remains in a museum or watching a T-Rex redux chase down some poor human on screen, we can’t get enough. And to Black, it’s more than that. “Dinosaurs live again where our imagination touches bone, the consequences of impact creating a great, constantly unfolding puzzle in which the discovery of every new fossil feels like a victory. Against the odds, this creature was fossilized. And against the odds, we found it.”
Black soberly reminds us that, in the end, “extinction comes for all species,” the dinosaur fossils a “memento mori.” Dinosaurs were on earth for over 165 million years, yet they are long gone. And as we gaze up at their erected fossils, it’s natural to wonder what will become of us. Will we end by chance or by our own undoing? Either way, we know life, some form of life, will persist. Here’s Black, once again sharing her awe: “From the time life originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment.”

Find in Catalog

The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by J. A. Jacobs

In a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle, the clue “A.J. ___________, author of The Know-It-All” was the greatest moment in the answer’s life. That is until his brother-in-law pointed out that it was the Saturday puzzle – the hardest one of the week with the most obscure clues. So maybe it wasn’t the greatest moment in Jacobs’ life but it was still pretty cool and it reignited his love of crosswords.

That love turned into a passion, not just for crosswords but all kinds of puzzles, and to the book “The Puzzler: One Man’s Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life”.

The author explores all kinds of puzzles beginning with crosswords. From interviewing The New York Times puzzle creator Peter Gordon to the surprisingly recent history of the form, Jacobs not only informs but challenges you with crosswords you can solve.  The first wordcross (crossword), published in the New York World in 1913, is included. The puzzle quickly gained in popularity and was picked up by numerous publications. However The New York Times, now famed for their puzzles, considered the form too lowbrow and frivolous for publication.

As with most of the puzzle forms explored, an appendix is included to the chapter with puzzles for you to try (solutions are in the last part of the book). Also included are puzzles created for this title by Greg Pliska, founder of the Exaltation of Larks puzzle company. Twenty puzzles are included plus if you find the secret passcode in the introduction you can unlock more puzzles at

The Rubik’s Cube and its 43 quintillion possible arrangements came along much later than the crossword, 1974. Jacobs’ parents bought him one but he didn’t get more than one side done. Determined to rectify this gap in his puzzle resume, he spends a Saturday determined to finish and 41 years after his first attempt he completes the cube. Of course Yusheng Du who can complete the puzzle in 3.47 seconds would not be impressed with Jacobs’ time.

Anagrams, rebuses, and all manner of word games are explored.  Then it’s on to jigsaws. Jacobs admits he wasn’t a fan of this particular puzzle. During his research he discovered jigsaw fans included Bill Gates, Queen Elizabeth II, and Hugh Jackman. He also found the World Jigsaw Puzzle Championship. It was to be held in Spain with 40 countries represented, one of which was not the U.S. Thinking he would surely be turned down, Jacobs filled out the entry form. Alas, a day later he was confirmed as Team USA. Now he just needs 3 teammates and to actually finish a jigsaw puzzle.

He recruits his family and they begin training. It is satisfying to put pieces together and get that aha moment when things fit – when chaos becomes order. On the day of the competition they find themselves led to 1 of 86 tables which contains 4 unpublished 1000-2000 piece puzzles.  They have 8 hours to complete all 4 puzzles. Team USA goal? Don’t finish last!

Mazes, math and logic puzzles have the author tackling puzzles that require you to think outside the box and sometimes to reverse your thinking to find a solution. Next is ciphers and secret codes. Jacobs was granted permission to enter the CIA headquarters to view a famous unsolved puzzle, Kryptos. Jim Sanborn was commissioned to create a sculpture for the expanded headquarters in 1988. The wavy wall of copper contains a secret message. It’s been over 30 years and Sanborn is still the only one with the solution.

Jacobs also covers visual puzzles (Where’s Waldo), Sudukos, KenKen and chess problems which includes an entertaining interview with Garry Kasparov. His coverage of Riddles starts with Alice in Wonderland as Lewis Carroll who was a big fan.  He touches on historical riddles and riddles in other works of literature including the Book of Exeter. Created by monks the book is famous for having some really naughty riddles and for having no answer key.

Japanese puzzles boxes, cryptics, scavenger hunts (including the MIT Mystery Hunt) and infinite puzzles round out Jacobs puzzle journey. Along with those aha moments when a solution was found or 2 pieces fit, Jacobs found that we can all learn some lessons from puzzle solving.

This is a fun, informative read you’ll find on the New Nonfiction shelves in the lobby. Just one caveat – if you want to try solving any of the puzzles please make photocopies. We don’t one to deprive the next reader of their own aha moment.