Mobituaries by Mo Rocca

It might seem a bit morbid to be reading a whole book of obituaries, but in the hands of Mo Rocca it becomes a chance to celebrate the contributions of these people, many of whom are nearly forgotten footnotes to history. Mo teases out interesting little-known facts, explores backgrounds and upbringing, delves into personality quirks to paint a dynamic, multi-faceted portrait of each subject.

Some of Mobituaries more famous subjects include Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet “Common Sense” helped fuel the American Revolution but died in obscurity (apparently he wasn’t a very pleasant person and had no friends by the time he died); Audrey Hepburn who grew up in Holland and nearly died of starvation during the German occupation in World War II (although Hepburn was not Jewish, she felt a close kinship with Anne Frank who was the same age as Hepburn); and Billy Carter who, briefly, became almost as famous as his brother Jimmy and cultivated a country bumpkin manner that hid a sharp and thoughtful mind (there is an interesting quote from President Carter regarding his brother that kind of sums up their relationship). There’s Lawrence Welk who, despite what you think when you hear his accent, was not German at all, but born and raised in North Dakota; and Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, who overcame great hardship and exploitation to become astute businessmen and raise large families.

Mobituaries also looks at the less famous that should be remembered for their contributions such as Elizabeth Jennings who has sometimes been called the Rosa Parks of New York City for breaking the color barrier on streetcars (among other accomplishments) or the first African American men elected to Congress (if you think that must of happened in the 1950s or 60s, you’re wrong; it happened in 1870).

And it’s not just people! Mo pays tribute to the station wagon and it’s demise, the disappearance of the country of Prussia and medical practices that have been debunked among other subjects. He includes the sad deaths of the Live Oaks of Toomer’s Corner, two famous trees that stood at the entrance of the University of Auburn’s campus. A center for celebrations when the Auburn Tigers won a game (especially against bitter rival Alabama), they were poisoned by a jealous Alabama fan and despite great effort, the trees perished.

Throughout the book, Mo is calm and non-judgmental, a good interviewer and listener, always with a dash of humor. He seems to be delighted in finding quirks and celebrates the courage and determination of many of his subjects. You’ll find lots of history and trivia in this book as well as an exploration of that strange creature, the human, with all their flaws and strengths, in good times and bad.

I also highly recommend Mo Rocca’s podcast, also called Mobituaries, where he reports on these stories and many others.

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check

Hello Challengers!

Just checking in halfway through the month to see how things are going for you. Have you been able to find a book you want to read? There are so many books set during World War II, it can be hard to pick one!

If you’re still looking, be sure to check the displays at each Davenport library location. And don’t forget about e-books – check our collection on the Overdrive or Libby app to see if a title you want to read is available to read on your Kindle or tablet (check with any librarian at the library if you need help getting started!)

Of course, sometimes the culprit is time – too many other obligations and distractions! In that case, maybe a movie would be a better idea. Here’s a few ideas.

Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds follows the convoluted journey of one of Gustav Klimt’s most famous paintings, from it’s creation, to it’s seizure by the Nazi’s to it’s return to it’s rightful home.

The Courageous Heart of Irene Sendler – Starring Anna Paquin true story of a Polish social worker that was able to smuggle Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto.

Dunkirk with Tom Hardy, Harry Styles and Kenneth Branagh recreates the tense and daring rescue of thousands of Allied soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.

Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks. From the terrifying Allied invasion of Normandy to the dangerous, war-torn villages of France and Germany, eight soldiers are sent to bring home one.

The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly is the fascinating story behind the Enigma machine and how the English broke the German’s secret code, saving thousands of lives.

Band of Brothers, a ten-part HBO mini-series about ‘Easy Company’ of the US Army who fought in several major battles including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler’s Eagles Nest while suffering major casualties.

And, of course, Casablanca. If you’ve never seen this classic, do yourself a favor and watch it now.

That’s just a small sampling. I’ve concentrated (both with movies and books) on the war in Europe, but there are many more set in the Pacific Theater. As always, read what interests you!

Happy reading (or watching!)

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on DVD

CIA analyst Jack Ryan sits behind a desk, working on a computer. He is not, he repeats, not a field agent. But when he uncovers a terrorist’s plan for a massive attack on the United States and her allies, he is pushed into action and sent on a dangerous mission to end the threat in season one of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

The story is somewhat familiar: Suliman, a high ranking tribal leader in the Middle East has gathered a group of followers and is planning a massive strike on the West. Working as an analyst, Jack discovers a pattern of suspicious bank transactions that lead him to believe Suliman is planning something devastating. Despite the fact that he isn’t a field agent, Jack’s boss sends him to the Middle East to investigate and stop whatever the terrorist has planned.

Based on Tom Clancy’s books about Jack Ryan, this television series delivers with lots of action, intrigue, secrets and close-calls. John Krasinski as Jack Ryan is likable and relate-able, the every man (although one with considerable gun skills) that is pushed into impossible situations but manages to stay-the-course and come out in one piece. Ryan’s background is hinted out, but never fully explained, we simply know that he served in the Special Forces in the Middle East and was badly injured in battle.

A mature, fast-paced exploration of very complex issues.

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott

Edie believes her husband Francis died in 1918 in a horrific battle near the end of World War I when he is declared “missing, presumed killed”. But in 1921 she receives a photo of Francis in the mail with no letter or return address and she begins to wonder if he made it out alive and is waiting for her. She contacts Francis’s brother Harry, and asks him to help her, to either find Francis or find his grave.

Harry, who was with Francis when he was wounded, does not believe Francis is still alive, but he is in love with Edie and will do what he can to help. Harry has been working as a photographer, taking pictures of graves and battle-sites for grieving families back in England and he understands just how chaotic and devastated the French and Belgium countryside is – entire villages have completely disappeared, while others struggle to rebuild, fields are littered with shells and mortar and bones and whole forests are nothing but burned and broken stumps.

Returning to the places that Harry and Francis (and Will, their younger brother who was killed early in the war) fought is difficult for Harry as he is flooded with memories of what they had been, what they went through and what happened to them. It is obvious that Harry is suffering from what we now call PTSD but that he is coping and that Francis also suffered and was broken by the war. In addition, Harry is burdened with the fact that he has been in love with Edie for years and, while nothing happened between Harry and Edie, Francis cannot forgive him.

Edie and Harry, traveling both together and separately, meet a wide range of people suffering in the aftermath of the war – widows and families searching for lost soldiers (many that died were never identified or found) trying to find closure with a grave or memorial, veterans haunted by what they had witnessed, ordinary people struggling to survive.

The Poppy Wife paints an unapologetic portrait of “the Great War” and it’s devastating and long-reaching affects. The chapters move between the three brothers during the war and Harry and Edie’s search for Francis in 1921. Scott’s writing is calm and collected, almost poetic, but the horror and senselessness of what happened on those foreign fields is never far from the surface. And it is nearly impossible to put down as the tension and mystery builds. Highly recommended.

If you are interested in learning more about this time period, I highly recommend Vera Brittan’s Testament of Youth (which is not fiction but actually happened to her) which has been made into a mini-series, to watch A Very Long Engagement starring Audrey Tautou, and Peter Jackson’s brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old in which footage from the war has been remastered, bringing the time vividly to life.

Online Reading Challenge 2020 Begins Today!

Hello Challengers!

It’s a New Year and a New Online Reading Challenge! Hurrah! Unlike those pesky New Year’s Resolutions that try to “fix” you and are usually abandoned within a few days, the Online Reading Challenge is all about having fun and trying something new with no pressure. Read as much or as little as you like, whenever you like. And you get to choose what to read from a list of suggestions – no more getting stuck using your precious reading time on a book you really don’t want to read!

Our 2020 theme is “From Film to Book”. We’re going to take iconic films (you’re probably familiar with the basic story even if you’ve never seen the film) and read books that have a similar setting or time period or theme.  At the beginning of each month I’ll talk about the film a bit and then list some suggested titles. There will be displays at each Davenport Library location with more ideas, plus you’ll want to stop in and pick up a Online Reading Challenge book log/bookmark which lists the film for each month and even has room to list the books you read!

OK – time to get started! Our first film is Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Surely everyone is familiar with this film – the love triangle, the bar, the famous song, the final scenes at the airport.  Set in 1942 in Casablanca, a city teeming with refugees desperate to escape Nazi-occupied Europe, it embodies loyalty, sacrifice, friendship, patriotism and love.

There are a couple of different routes you can take when looking for this month’s book. World War II has long been a very popular subject for books and there is no shortage of excellent titles both in fiction and non-fiction. You could also read something set in Morocco (although there aren’t many to choose from), stories about refugees or the French Resistance or any wartime romance. And any book set during World War II will qualify (remember – there are no Library Police!)

I’ve always been interested in World War II and have read a lot set in that time period. A few of my personal favorites include:

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  (blog post)

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (blog post)

The Huntress by Kate Quinn (blog post)

City of Thieves by David Benioff (blog post)

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (blog post)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (blog post)

The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean (blog post)

A Thread of Grace by Mary Russell (blog post)

Check the displays at each of the Davenport library locations for lots more titles!

I’m planning on reading The Last Train to London by Meg Clayton. It’s fiction based on a true story about a woman in The Netherlands helping Jewish children in Europe escape to England. Can’t wait to get started!

Now, what about you? Will you be joining us in this year’s Reading Challenge? What do you plan to read in January?

 

 

 

Online Reading Challenge – 2019 Wrap-Up

Hello Challengers!

We’ve made it through another Online Reading Challenge year! Hurrah! Whether you read a book every month or just once, I hope you found something great to read and enjoy.

December’s topic – Friends and Family – had lots of relevant titles to choose from and yet my month was a Fail. I blame the fact that the end of the year is such a busy time, but the truth is, I just didn’t find anything that really grabbed my interest – if I had, I would have found time to read it! How about you – how was your December Reading Challenge?

However, overall my reading year has been great! I read 47 books this year (so far, I might squeeze one more in!) although I have to admit 19 of those were the Joe Pickett mystery series by C.J. Box. Not only are these relatively quick to read, they’re the kind of books that make you stay up way past your bedtime to finish! I read some truly great books this year, many of which have found their way onto my all-time favorites list. I hope you enjoyed a great reading year as well!

Be sure to check the blog on January 2nd when the Online Reading Challenge 2020 – Film to Book  will begin! I think it’s going to be another great year and I can’t wait to get started!

Online Reading Challenge – Mid-Month Check-In

Hello Fellow Readers!

How is your month of reading going? Have you found an especially good “Friends and Family” related book? Of course, this is a crazy busy month so maybe a movie would be a better choice. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started.

Ordinary People describes a youth’s breakdown and recovery and how it affects his family.

The Royal Tenenbaums. A once prominent New York lawyer pretends to have a terminal illness in order to try to reunite with his family of former childhood prodigies.

The Glass Castle chronicling the adventures of an eccentric, resilient and tight-knit family.

The Family Man. Jack Campbell, a workaholic Wall Street exec, gets to see what his life might have been like if he’d stayed with his former sweetheart, Kate.

The Impossible. Based on a true story of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time.

Kramer vs Kramer. When his wife walks out, Ted Kramer and his six-year-old son have a chance to really get to know each other.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. A story about a special summer in the lives of four lifelong friends who are separated for the first time.

Bridesmaids. Annie’s life is a mess. But when she finds out her lifetime best friend is engaged, she simply must serve as Lillian’s maid of honor.

Stand By Me.  Four boys set out on a two-day search for a missing teenager’s body, a search that turns into an odyssey of self-discovery.

 

Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

In November of 2017, my girlfriend and I adopted a 4-month-old puppy. The reason she was up for adoption was a common refrain, here in the Quad Cities and throughout America. Her previous owners had to move, and the landlord of their new place didn’t allow “ferocious breeds.” Although neither Davenport nor Scott County have any breed-specific legislation (BSL) on the books – which is surprising given that Iowa in general is rather dog-unfriendly, having 91 towns and cities with BSL, by far the most of any state in America – that doesn’t prevent landlords or rental companies from having their own discriminatory dog policies.

I’m sure some of you balked at me referring to BSL as discrimination. If you did (and even if you didn’t!), I implore you to read Bronwen Dickey’s Pit Bull: The Battle Over an American Icon. This thoroughly researched book had a lot to teach me, and I’ve been an animal lover and advocate my entire life. But Dickey is not a pit bull partisan interested solely in proselytizing. Her work is backed up with data and interviews, and she makes sure to provide plenty of perspectives. Most importantly, she is deeply humanistic, never losing sight of how people affect and are affected by their canine companions.

While BSL can impact several different breeds, such as Rottweilers and Dobermans, pit bulls are by far the primary target (all 91 instances of BSL in Iowa target pit bulls; only 15 mention other breeds). Dickey manages to problematize this with one simple fact: “pit bull” isn’t actually a breed! It’s actually a dog type consisting of (depending on who you ask) four to five breeds: American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and American Bulldog. Furthermore, mixed-breed dogs and dogs of unknown pedigree that happen to share any similarities with these breeds – head size, body shape, short coat, etc. – get labeled as pit bulls by shelters and veterinarians. However, looks can be deceiving, and this is especially true when it comes to dogs. Dickey illustrates, with photographs and scientific research, how mixed breed dogs of known parentage often look nothing like either of their parents.

It comes as no surprise, then, when Dickey shows us that even people who work with dogs for a living have a less than stellar accuracy rate when it comes to identifying breeds. Dickey reports on numerous studies in the book. “After collecting cheek swabs from twenty mixed-breed dogs at four California shelters, [the authors of the study] asked a number of shelter workers to look at each dog and guess its breed(s). The shelter workers’ visual guesses – that is, the breeds they would have written on the dogs’ kennel cards and medical paperwork – did not match the animals DNA results 87.5 percent of the time” (pgs. 57-58, emphasis mine). In a follow-up study, the scientists showed video clips of twenty mixed-breed dogs to 900 subjects who worked in dog-related jobs – such as vets, trainers, groomers, shelter works, and animal control officers – and asked the subjects to identify which breeds were present in the dogs. The results were less than inspiring (pg. 58):

For only seven of the twenty dogs did more than half of the respondents agree on the most prominent breed. Interestingly, the predominant breed they chose did not show up at all in the DNA of three of those seven animals. Subsequent research confirmed this pattern. After looking at photographs of 120 mixed-breed dogs, shelter workers mislabeled 55 as being “pit bull mixes,” while missing 5 that actually were.

The troubling aspect is not that humans, even experts, are fallible – we don’t need a scientific study to tell us that – but rather that legislation that profoundly impacts peoples’ lives is being passed and enforced based solely on unscientific and unreliable methodology.

As such, it’s not just dogs that are discriminated against by BSL. Dickey traces how pit bulls, once beloved American icons who lived in the White House and starred in The Little Rascals, have come to be viewed as “lower class” dogs that are strongly associated with people of color. In light of this fact, it’s easy to see how BSL is just another aspect of systemic, institutional racism. It may be illegal to deny someone housing for being black or Latino, but not for being a pit bull owner – many of whom are, in fact, black or Latino. The predominance of pit bull prejudice is problematic because it becomes self-perpetuating. When enough legislation is passed, it becomes hegemonic, taken as a matter of fact. As Dickey masterfully shows in her book, however, the facts are a lot less clear than the talking heads would have you believe. It’s a deeply political issue, and as such should be approached rationally. Right now, the matter is murky with myth and prejudice; Pit Bull book goes a long way to dispelling the fog of superstition with its clear-headed, materialist, evidence-based approach.

Anecdotally, our puppy – Doobie, the first pit bull either of us had ever taken care of – has grown into such a gentle, loving dog that when we saw another pit bull puppy at the humane society, we couldn’t help but adopt her, too (despite having no plans for a second dog). Doobie’s younger sister, Sigourney, despite being even bigger than Doob, is somehow even less deserving of her “ferocious” appellation. In fact, she’s an awkward, gangly, 60 pound canine that thinks she’s a lapdog. The only thing these girls do aggressively is love, play, and goof off (although they have taken over our futon).

 

The Outer Worlds Video Game

guest post by Wesley B

2019 has been a good year for AA developers – studios that fall somewhere between small indie teams and big corporate juggernauts in terms of budget and labor power. In September, Spiders released Greedfall, a better BioWare game than BioWare itself has released lately. Now, Obsidian has done something similar with The Outer Worlds – a better Fallout game than Bethesda’s own Fallout 76 (and, for that matter, some might say, better than Fallout 4). Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed Obsidian’s output over the years. The studio is responsible for some of my favorite games of all time: Knights of the Old Republic II, Alpha Protocol, the Pillars of Eternity series, Neverwinter Nights 2, Tyranny. Most relevantly to The Outer Worlds, they made Fallout: New Vegas for Bethesda, a game that remains many fans’ favorite entry in the Fallout franchise.

Critics, however, were less kind to New Vegas. While there was a strong favorable consensus around the narrative (particularly the level of freedom and player choice), the gameplay was more hit or miss, and the experience was riddled with bugs on release. These technical issues stemmed mainly from the fact that New Vegas was made using Bethesda’s rickety Gamebryo engine, on a tight Bethesda-imposed deadline (the game was made in 18 months; for perspective, Fallout 3 took four years to develop). It seems a tad unfair, then, that Bethesda tied Obsidian’s bonus to the game’s Metacritic score – a benchmark they fell short of by a single point. In light of this history, it’s easy to view The Outer Worlds as Obsidian thumbing their nose at Bethesda. And as I said above, the game does fill the Fallout-shaped void present in gaming since 76 bombed. The Outer Worlds is its own beast, though, not just a reskinned Fallout game, and deserves to be judged on its own merits.

To begin with, let’s get the similarities out of the way. Like the modern Fallout games, The Outer Worlds is a first-person shooter/role-playing game hybrid with an emphasis on exploration and dialogue. As you reconnoiter the world and chat with its inhabitants you’ll quickly find your journal filling up with side quests. You can talk your way out of conflict, sneak around to avoid it, or confront it head-on with ranged or melee weapons. There are locks to pick and computers to hack in order to gain experience, loot, side quests, and lore. When you level up, you’ll be given skill points and perks to distribute as you see fit. You’ll be presented with morally ambiguous decisions to make that will affect the world and how the people in it treat you.

Some people point to the Tactical Time Dilation (TTD) as a similarity, even going so far as to call it knock-off VATS. In my experience, though, the similarities between the two are strictly superficial. VATS in Fallout stops time (halting you and your companions and opponents in your tracks) and allows you to flick between targets, and fire as many shots as you have action points for. TTD, on the other hand, doesn’t stop time, but simply slows it down significantly, allowing you to aim and move freely until the TTD meter depletes. TTD also allows you to analyze your enemies and target different locations to proc various status effects, like knockdown, stagger, blind, and so on. As someone who relies on VATS to get myself through Fallout, I actually prefer TTD – it feels much more fluid.

The most obvious difference is to be found in the setting. Both games take place in the distant future, but Fallout explores a post-nuclear apocalypse America, while The Outer Worlds takes us to a whole new solar system, the Halcyon Colony. Halcyon is under the complete control of the Board, a holding company comprised of executives from the colony’s various founding companies. While both franchises use their settings to critique the structural shortcomings and moral failures of late stage capitalism, the extraterrestrial setting of The Outer Worlds allows for a much greater variety in flora, fauna, terrain, technology, and – perhaps most importantly to those of you who are aesthetically inclined like I am – color palette (I adore the Fallout games but sometimes it’s nice to see colors other than dull browns and greys).

The fact that you traverse an entire solar system means that The Outer Worlds has you visiting, unlike Fallout’s expansive open world (on a single, interconnected map), a variety of separate, enclosed, discrete locations. It’s also a much shorter game than the typical Fallout experience, though of course the actual length varies greatly depending on how much side content you do, how thoroughly you explore, and so on. These changes might be negative for some people, but I actually appreciated them. Obsidian, lacking the overhead of Bethesda, knew they couldn’t match the scope of a Fallout game, so chose instead to opt for quality over quantity. The smaller maps sacrifice breadth for depth, and are filled to the brim with content and details, making them feel incredibly vibrant. The shorter storyline meant the writing was focused and well-paced, holding my interest throughout. Most importantly, it left me wanting more – I can’t wait to make a new character with different skills, experiment with new playstyles, and see how the game responds to different choices.

The Outer Worlds is available at the Davenport Library on the PlayStation 4 and XBox One platforms.

Moonlighter Video Game

guest post by Wesley B

When I first launched Moonlighter, I was immediately struck by its art style. True, an indie game with retro-styled pixel graphics isn’t exactly a rare find these days, but Moonlighter manages to stand out from the crowd with its refreshingly bright and varied palette. Even more impressive are the animations, which are painstakingly detailed and impart a remarkable amount of character to the simplistic sprites. My favorite example is the shop assistant you can hire after expanding your shop enough. They have a distinctive coif of thick hair that they always take a moment to tie back when you open your shop for the day.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the beginning of the game, your shop (named, surprisingly enough, the Moonlighter), far from being successful enough to require an assistant, is struggling to stay open. In fact, the whole town of Rynoka is depressed, both economically and emotionally – a far cry from its heyday as a bustling hub for both heroes and merchants. This prosperity stemmed from the nearby Dungeons – four mysterious caverns that appeared out of nowhere one day, attracting adventurers of all sorts seeking fame and fortune within. Of course, there’s neither glory nor riches without risk, and as the death toll mounted, all but the least dangerous of the Dungeons were boarded up. Rynoka’s (and by extension the Moonlighter’s) salad days ended soon after.

Enter Will, the player character. Although a merchant by trade, he moonlights (get it?) as a hero by night, venturing into the sole open Dungeon for loot to sell at the shop by day. This is the conceit by which developers Digital Sun integrate two disparate (but similarly addictive) genres of gameplay – roguelite dungeon crawler and shop simulator – into one brilliant, engaging gameplay loop. The money you make selling your loot in the shop can go to upgrading your shop or resuscitating Rynoka by investing in new businesses. The most important of these businesses is the blacksmith, who takes money and materials and crafts armor and weapons for you. These in turn allow you to delve deeper into more difficult dungeons, making more money to further expand your shop and upgrade your gear, allowing you to make it even further into the Dungeons, and so on. It’s the type of game that will have you saying “just one more day” over and over until the sun rises – in the real world this time.