symphony for the city of the deadBiographies or any sort of nonfiction relating to the siege of Leningrad that occurred amidst World War II can become depressing to read because of the many, many atrocities committed and the vast number of people who died. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the opposite of the traditional heavy nonfiction. Anderson breaks up his story of Shostakovich and the evolution of Leningrad by dropping in back-and-white historical photographs that allow readers to put a face to a name. This inclusion breaks up the chaos and destruction happening within his descriptions of Stalin’s purges and the eventual siege of Leningrad by bringing in pictures and maps to connect the history presented with an actual physical place and actual people. It may seem easy for people to ignore and write off atrocities committed, but I find that when authors choose to add pictures into their books, the subject matter becomes even more real and life-changing.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad really brought to life for me the importance of art and culture to a nation and its citizens, both in a negative and a positive light. Anderson tells readers the story of Stalin and his purges: how he rid the country of top military officials, science experts, and a wide variety of other people and effectively set his country up for more widespread disaster when Hitler invaded and he had no experts to ask for advice. This book focuses on art and culture, specifically music and Dmitri Shostakovich. This Russian composer escaped death at the hands of Stalin and instead found himself navigating the tricky tight-rope of composing the music that Stalin finds appropriate while still staying true to himself. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is the one that he writes for Leningrad, “The City of the Dead,” and this book effectively sets the stage for discovering Shostakovaich’s mindset around that time and also the necessary cultural and political framework that he was up against. Highly recommended!

Check out the following fiction and nonfiction books for more information about the siege of Leningrad and related topics!

the madonnas of leningradcity of thievesleningrad siege and symphonyinferno the world at warstalin the court of the red tsarabsolute war

the goddess of buttercups and daisiesDo you like reading about ancient gods and goddesses like Aphrodite, Athena, Zeus, etc? I know I do. One thing I found lacking when I was reading about them was that there was never any story about their day-to-day lives. Sure, everyone knows the Athena sprung whole out of her father Zeus’ head after he swallowed her mother to try to keep her from being born, that Aphrodite rose full-formed out of the sea foam, and that Zeus was a philandering God who had many different girlfriends and illegitimate children despite the fact that he was married to Hera, the goddess of weddings and marriage, but what about their everyday lives?? Martin Millar has attempted to tackle this question in his new book, The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies.

In The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, Martin Millar looks at both the daily life of the gods and goddesses, but also at the lives of the people who relied on them to make their lives work. (Admittedly more attention is paid to the citizens than to the gods, but interesting tidbits and stories are thrown in for good measure.) In this fantasy epic, the lives of Athenian citizens are in dire straits as the city is in its 10th year of war with Sparta. In hopes to end the war, a peace conference is being held around the time of the festival of Dionysus, the Greek god of fertility and wine who was also known as a patron of the arts.

Aristophanes is struggling to get the necessary funds to guarantee his play’s success and to make up for the fact that he didn’t win first prize at last year’s festival. His rival playwrights are receiving any and everything they could possibly want, while the politicians and festival sponsors seem to be conspiring to make sure his play fails gigantically. One group in town wants peace, while the other group wants war to continue. Aristophanes’ play about peace will never succeed without money, so he is forced to make some deals with some less-than-reputable people in town. Add in various people praying to the gods and asking for help and soon Athens finds itself the center of attention of some meddlesome gods who are willing to do whatever it takes to get the outcome they desire.

This funny, compelling, and witty adventure into the lives of average Athenian citizens and the gods they turn to for help will have you eagerly turning the page to see what destruction and mayhem could possibly come next.

monopolistsThe Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon

Monopoly. Everyone is familiar with the board game.  The odd little tokens and the fight over who gets to be the racecar. Plastic green houses and plastic red hotels. The person that always insisted on being the banker. The seemingly endless trips around the board, passing “Go” and collecting $200. The agony of landing on Boardwalk when it had multiple hotels on it.

Surprisingly, the board game Monopoly has a long and interesting background.  According to the manufacturers of the game, Parker Brothers, the Monopoly game was created by Charles Darrow.  Parker Brothers even printed the story of how Charles Darrow had created the game Monopoly in 1935 in the instruction booklet for the game:

In 1934, Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, presented a game called MONOPOLY to the executives of Parker Brothers. Mr. Darrow, like many other Americans, was unemployed at the time and often played this game to amuse himself and pass the time. It was the game’s exciting promise of fame and fortune that initially prompted Darrow to produce this game on his own. With help from a friend who was a printer, Darrow sold 5,000 sets of the MONOPOLY game to a Philadelphia department store. As the demand for the game grew, Darrow could not keep up with the orders and arranged for Parker Brothers to take over the game. Since 1935, when Parker Brothers acquired the rights to the game, it has become the leading proprietary game not only in the United States but throughout the Western World”. 

However, this story of the creation of Monopoly is not true.  The Monopoly game can be traced back to the early 1900s.  In 1906, Lizzie Magie applied for a patent on a game that she invented called, The Landlord’s Game.  Lizzie Magie was a follower of Henry George and she created the game in order to help explain George’s single tax theory. She played The Landlord’s Game with her friends, who in turn, copied the board so they would have their own copy of the game. Her friends played the game with other friends who copied the game and in turn, shared it with other friends.  The game spread. In 1924, Lizzie Magie renewed her patent for The Landlord’s Game.

This audiobook goes into more detail about the origins of the Monopoly game and how it became the game we all recognize today. People might have always thought the game was created by Charles Darrow if it had not been for a lawsuit in 1973.  Ralph Anspach, an economic professor, created a game that he called, Anti-Monopoly and he was sued by Parker Brothers. The truth of the origins of the Monopoly game were revealed during this time. A fascinating look at America during the turn of the century and through the Great Depression, corporate greed, and the discovery of the truth, this audiobook is one that you don’t want to miss!

Since we’re deep in the midst of summer vacation and hopefully none of the kids that you know are stuck in summer school, everyone is free to explore and run and, most importantly, not have to worry about getting up early and going to school. This break brings a conundrum to light as both parents and teachers begin to worry about the summer slide, also known as the time when kids start forgetting the important things they learned in the school year while they are on summer vacation.

How do we, as educators, parents, librarians, babysitters, etc, combat this? By making learning fun. Sure, we could bring home big tomes from the library and tell our kids that they have to read a certain set of pages before they can go outside and play, but the resulting struggle will instead leave everyone frustrated and angry and wishing they had something to bash their heads against. Let me help you avoid the agony and present you with some exciting and less injurious options. Let’s focus today’s blog post on history and alternative methods of learning, shall we? Read on!


hip-hop us historyI don’t know about you, but my difficulties in remembering things in school, and especially over summer vacation, always revolved around history. Blurgh. Textbooks made me fall asleep, I was always mixing dates around in my head, and THEN I discovered Hip-Hop U.S. History: The New and Innovative Approach to Learning American History. (I had found other similar works, not by the same authors, ranging from mixing poetry and music to math and music, but this, by far, was my favorite.) Blake Harrison and Alex Rappaport created Flocabulary, a website for teachers and school districts to find ways to teach anything ranging from social studies to languages arts to math and science to kids of all ages, but I particularly enjoyed this book. Number 1 reason: It has a CD of all the songs inside of it AND has an actual list of the lyrics! Each song has its own dedicated chapter with the lyrics broken down and explained in better detail. Be still your heart if you think this book is still boring. It’s not! Pictures are also added with quotations from that time period, perspectives pieces, and little biographies of the important people. You learn without actually realizing you’re learning! (And you’ll also have a few catchy songs stuck in your head to help you remember those pesky dates and important historical details!)


crashcourse

Let me share with you my most delightful learning find. This is the Crash Course YouTube channel, put together by none other that John Green, his lovely brother Hank, and two of their friends, Phil Plait and Craig Benzine. If these names sound familiar, yay! If not, let me introduce you to John Green, a writer of young adult books with works such as The Fault in Our Stars, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He and his brother, Hank Green, also have another YouTube channel called Vlogbrothers, where they send videos to each other, but these are far less about learning, so let’s focus on Crash Course. Here you will find videos on literature, ecology, biology, world history, US history, chemistry, and psychology, and many more. I got hooked on the literature ones, where John discusses anything from authors to books to poetry and adds his own unique spin. Each video is animated and punch filled with learning and facts and humor and keeps you on the edge of your seat wanting to learn more. I highly recommend you check them out for yourself and let me know what you think in the comments below.


This blog post gives you a glimmer of some of the things I’ve found that have helped with my own learning. I’ve got more ideas rolling around in my head, so keep checking back. If you’re looking for different ways to engage the kids you know or are maybe curious for yourself about new ways to learn old things, contact us at the library and we’d be glad to help you!

I love learning about local history. One of my favorite things to do is to do research and see if there are any local people who have become famous and have made it onto the national radar of notice. My newest local famous Quad City discovery is John Looney.

road to perdition dvd My journey into John Looney’s life began with the movie, Road to Perdition. This movie stars Paul Newman as John Looney, an Irish Gangster, and his adopted/surrogate son, Michael Sullivan, played by Tom Hanks. Sullivan is a hit man committing murders for his boss, Looney, who just happens to be in tight with Al Capone and the Chicago mobsters. Looney is highly involved with mobster scene in the “Tri-Cities,” which are Rock Island, Moline, and Davenport. (This is when my interest was piqued!) Mass confusion and violence happens when Sullivan’s son stows himself away in his father’s car and unwittingly witnesses a murder at the hands of his father and Looney’s biological son, Connor. After that murder, Connor feels the need to protect his father and sees the only option to be killing Sullivan’s entire family.. This movie is loosely based on part of the lives of John Looney and his son, Connor.

(This movie was based on a graphic novel, Road to Perdition, that was also written by a Quad City native, Max Allan Collins, born in Muscatine, Iowa.)

With my interest piqued after watching the movie and then reading the graphic novel, I citadel of sinwanted to learn more about John Looney’s real life. I found a biography entitled, Citadel of Sin: The John Looney story. In this book, Richard Hamer and Roger Ruthhart map out Looney’s life from birth to death. John Patrick Looney was the oldest boy of eight children born to Patrick and Margaret Looney of Ottawa, Illinois in 1866. His father moved to America in 1855 from Ireland and the family eventually settled in Ottawa, where John was born. John worked for the Western Union at the Rock Island train station in Ottawa as a telegrapher in 1881, before he moved to Rock Island in 1885 and became the head of the city telegraph station there.

In Rock Island, John’s life changed. He became interested in politics and wanted to become a prominent, wealthy, and respected member of the community. Before he turned 23, Looney was in charge of several precincts in Rock Island and was elected President of the Fifth Ward Democratic Club. Looney then passed the state bar exam and opened up a law practice. The law practice introduced him to many shady underground characters and that way of life eventually consumed Looney, leading him to manipulate the law to get what he wanted and descending into lawlessness. Check out this book to learn more about the infamous John Looney and the impact he left on the Quad Cities.

 

flyover lives For those of you not familiar with Diane Johnson, she is a writer who grew up right in the Midwest, in Moline, Illinois to be specific. Her Midwest roots can be found throughout her writings, specifically in her memoir, Flyover Lives.

Johnson grew up in Moline and writes that the Midwest was a place she wanted to escape from. She  eventually ended up in California and then in France, where the idea for this book sprang forth. At a house party in France, Johnson’s friend told her that Americans had an “indifference to history,” that that was why Americans were naïve and didn’t have as much of a grasp and pride in their history as the French did. When Johnson eventually made her way back to California, this conversation stayed stuck in her head. What if the people in the Midwest, otherwise known as the flyover states, also flew over their family history with little thought given to where they came from and the struggles of their ancestors? This bothered Johnson and she set out to find out more about her genealogy. This book serves as her rebuttal.

Accompanied with pictures from her life and her ancestors’ lives, Johnson weaves together a story about the hold that home has on us all and our twin desire to escape to other places and make a name for ourselves. Johnson and her readers will find similarities between their own lives and the descriptions of her ancestors and their eventual journey to the Midwest. The letters and memoirs Johnson discovered serve as the backdrop to her exploration of a proud family history that ends up in the Midwest with the potential to leak around the world.

Looking for more books by Johnson? You’re in luck! The library has a number of books by her like Le divorce, Le mariage, and L’affaire. Some of these books are also available in large print, e-books, and audio books. Le Divorce was also made into a movie. Interested in finding copies of those, either click on the titles or visit the library catalog and search.

life of the automobileThe automobile has arguably shaped the modern era more profoundly than any other human invention. Author Steven Parissien examines the impact, development, and significance of the automobile over its turbulent and colorful 130-year history in The Life of the Automobile.

Readers learn the grand and turbulent history of the motor car, from its earliest appearance in the 1880s – as little more than a powered quadricycle – and the innovations of the early pioneer carmakers. The author examines the advances of the interwar era, the Golden Age of the 1950s, and the iconic years of the 1960s to the decades of doubt and uncertainty following the oil crisis of 1973, the global mergers of the 1990s, the bailouts of the early twenty-first century, and the emergence of the electric car.

This is not just a story of horsepower and performance but a tale of extraordinary people: of intuitive carmakers such as Karl Benz, Sir Henry Royce, Giovanni Agnelli (Fiat), André Citroën, and Louis Renault; of exceptionally gifted designers such as the eccentric, Ohio-born Chris Bangle (BMW); and of visionary industrialists such as Henry Ford, Ferdinand Porsche (the Volkswagen Beetle), and Gene Bordinat (the Ford Mustang), among numerous other game changers.

Above all, this comprehensive history demonstrates how the epic story of the car mirrors the history of the modern era, from the brave hopes and soaring ambitions of the early twentieth century to the cynicism and ecological concerns of a century later. Bringing to life the flamboyant entrepreneurs, shrewd businessmen, and gifted engineers that worked behind the scenes to bring us horsepower and performance, The Life of the Automobile is a globe-spanning account of the auto industry that is sure to rev the engines of entrepreneurs and gearheads alike. (description from publisher)

nelson mandelaI’ve been a fan of Kadir Nelson’s illustrations for years without realizing it.  Nelson is an illustrator and writer who has created some of the most beautiful and powerful books of the past fifteen years. Primarily focusing on African-American history and heroes, Nelson has proven to be adept at writing and illustrating books about challenging subjects gracefully and with age-appropriate illustrations and language. He illustrated the Caldecott Honor books Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford and Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, as well as books by Spike Lee, Will Smith, Nikki Grimes, Sharon Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s daughter) and Michael Jordan.

With the release of Nelson’s newest picture book, Nelson Mandela, I took another look at his 2008 release We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.  Both books are written and illustrated by Nelson and feature his signature resplendent paintings.   We are the Ship tells the story of baseball’s segregation from the start of the Negro League baseball in the 1920s, until Jackie Robinson crossed over into the majors in 1947.  This non-fiction book is told in 9 chapters (labeled as innings) and reads as a collective voice.  The writing is inspiring without being overly sentimental and smart while still being accessible.

we are the shipNelson Mandela is a much shorter work, but no less compelling.  The prose is fluid and poetic, and there are few stories more powerful than Mandela’s.  Nelson made some stylistic decisions that really make this picture book stand out.  The front cover of the book is a striking painting of Mandela’s face (above), with all of the book’s text on the back cover.  Light is used prominently throughout the book, from the cover shot of Mandela’s face bathed in light with a black background to the use of a rising sun as the story tells of Mandela’s birth to the absence of light while Mandela was in prison.  This use of literal light to convey the figurative impact Mandela has made on so many people helps give visual cues to readers, while the text does a remarkable job filling in the rest of the story for young readers.  You can find more books written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson at the Davenport Public Library!

Webcomics collected for the printed page rarely hang together as cohesive singular works, and this book is no exception. They also rarely deliver a consistent laughs-per-page number or manage to be as fresh on page 50 as they are on page 1; and for these, Hark! A Vagrant is indeed an exception. Kate Beaton’s comic is very funny and accessible; she pokes fun at various literary and historical figures (both infamous and obscure), in addition to hipsters and teenagers and even superheroes. If you like smarmy, witty, smart comedy and drawings that range from the moody and surreal to the supremely cute, this book is a great choice!

Since the humor is hard to describe, just check out this comic. If you like humor about 200 year old inventors or have a soft spot for Tesla…

Source: http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=256

For more awesome, check out Kate Beaton’s comics at their original home: harkavagrant.com.

These true tales range from the funny and flippant to the gritty and gruesome. Give nonfiction audio a try! You may find that nonfiction (which doesn’t always have a strong narrative thread you need to follow) is ideal for listening in stops and starts.

  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson; this gripping tale of a serial killer at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago is so spellbinding, you’ll want to extend your commute to hear more!
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey, read by the author: this book is shriekingly funny. Truly one of the best audio books around – Fey is witty and direct, never sappy, and always gut-bustingly hilarious.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; a universally praised book that mixes science with history and family drama.
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling Lexie reviewed the book, and I agree with her: this book is FUNNY. You’ll want to be best friends with Mindy by the end.
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron: Ephron’s candid observations on life and getting older are enjoyable and crisply humorous.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers: The gritty true story of the tribulations of Abduhlraman Zeitoun and his family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  • At Home by Bill Bryson, read by the author: see my review for a longer rant on the excellence of this very excellent book.
  • The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell, read by the author: You know Sarah Vowell’s voice already – she vocalized for Violet in Pixar’s The Incredibles. You’ll also recognize the many luminaries/musicians/comedians/TV personalities who make cameos in her delectable book – Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, for example. Oh, and it’s full of intelligent and interesting essays about history and American culture, too.