Humans by Brandon Stanton

Humans by Brandon Stanton is a coffee table-style book worth the time it takes to examine its large, full color photos featuring people of all kinds. I read this book a while back but it has stuck with me so much I felt it worth sharing. The author approached people while traveling all over the world and asked them to share something about themselves. Anything.

It amazes me how freely the people profiled opened up to the author, revealing their joys, heartbreaks, hopes, and vulnerabilities. One person shared how the abuse perpetrated by their father throughout a lifetime led to a chain of events that resulted in homelessness and amputation. Another shared his hopes for his tween son and the self-doubt that keeps him awake at night wondering if he is doing right by him as a father. One woman shared how her faith brought her a level of joy and success that she never anticipated.  One exquisitely dressed person happily shared their love for people-watching in the park and how accepting others just the way they are has brought peace. Some lamented about smoking too much, eating too much, worrying too much, loving too much.

I found it beautiful, both visually and emotionally. It served as a reminder that we all have doubts, insecurities, worries and troubles but that we also can share and celebrate one another’s joys and triumphs. Plus, in this time when many of us are not socializing much due to Covid-19, reading this book was a unique way to experience some form of human intimacy and expand my capacity for empathy. The takeaway for me was that humans seek connection in inventive and fascinating ways- sometimes painful, sometimes delightful, but always beautiful.

 

 

How to Educate a Citizen by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

I remember writing an essay once making the argument that what a person knows isn’t as paramount as their willingness and ability to learn. Never have I called that idea into question as much as after reading How to Educate a Citizen: the Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation. In it, E.D. Hirsch articulates the philosophy that a shared, core knowledge base is a very important component of a peaceful, productive society. Perhaps 2020 is good evidence of that, or at least the pitfalls of the failure to achieve it.

As someone who loves information, it is perplexing to me that we seem to have arrived at a place where the collected body of knowledge, often acquired at great cost, is regarded disdainfully, if not outright rejected, by so many people. Hirsch, an educator, literary critic and author of other books, such as Cultural Literacy, is concerned about the Constructivist approach the American educational system has largely followed since the 1960s. Sometimes called child or student-centered education, it has become the norm in most classrooms across the country. This approach relies on the student to guide or “construct” their own educational experience by asking questions and doing research and experiments as they are motivated. It does not necessarily teach them how to do the research or give them a jumping-off point from the apex of collective knowledge.

You may have heard it lauded in the expression, “Be a guide on the side not a sage on the stage.”  Hirsch argues that a so-called sage can entice students in a variety of interesting ways. Additionally, it avoids the frustration of expecting students to inherently know what questions to ask in directing their own educational path, as necessitated by the child-centered method.

The readers should not misunderstand Core Knowledge as simply a discrete list of facts. The facts, Hirsch says, must be tied into the context of culture. Understanding culture, including the depth of its histories which shape it, is essential.

What, then, is a concerned citizen to do?

Consider this excerpt, which will likely be relatable to readers with children in their lives: “A parent in the [child-centered] schools, when a child comes home, says ‘How was your day? Okay, what’d you learn?’ The child says, ‘Uh.’ In [Core Knowledge] schools, the parent knows specifically what to ask the child. ‘What did you learn about the solar system today? What did you learn about the Bill of Rights today?’…In other schools, parents don’t know what role to play. I don’t want parents selling cookies and all that nonsense. I want them to be responsible for learning, and having them demonstrate their knowledge.”

This would suggest taking an interest in the curricula in your community’s schools. If you’ve ever read through any state’s latest educational standards, you’ll find vague statements that leave a wide berth for variations in curricular implementation across classrooms, even in the same communities at the same grade levels. It is lacking in “specific subject-matter details.” This, according to Hirsch, is problematic because it leaves society devoid of a unifying set of understandings. Without that, different people see the same events and come to vastly different conclusions.

Hirsch cites empirical evidence that the child-centered approach, when contrasted with the content-based approach he calls Core Knowledge, is lacking. The success of schools who commit to a content-based model is evidenced in their above-average test scores, their level of improvement after switching from another method, even their victories over competitors in debate championships, including students living in poverty or other oppressive life circumstances. The level of unity and competence rises in students who receive content-based instruction.

Hirsch also points out that living in society requires cooperation among people. He challenges the reader to consider the threats to democracy that individualism poses. I appreciate that Hirsch’s style is devoid of self-righteous certitude and moral indignation that makes some nonfiction reading burdensome. I recommend thoughtfully reading How to Educate a Citizen: the Power of Shared Knowledge to Unify a Nation.  When you’re done, you can check out Hirsh’s Core Knowledge series shelved in the Learning Collection of the Davenport Public Library. A list of the Learning Collection books can be found in the LibGuide here.

Storey’s Curious Compendium of Practical and Obscure Skills: 214 Things You Can Actually Learn How to Do

You could probably manage to stay alive without knowing how to do any of the 214 things in Storey’s Curious Compendium of Practical and Obscure Skills, but you could be a whole lot more interesting if you do. Actually, a couple of the things, like properly storing winter vegetables and purifying water are necessary life skills. Depending on how the next few years go, you may actually have to use them. I can’t think of any other reason why you would want to dig a 3×4′ hole and overlay it with plastic sheeting and tubing if you didn’t have to…unless, of course, you happen to have the energy of an eight-year-old.

This nonfiction book from the self-described “community of doers” at Storey Publishing is a fascinating one to peruse if you’ve got some time and the interest to learn something new. And as ways to spend time go, this is one of the more useful ones you could choose. Sure, you could search on Google for any of these things, but how many of us would think to Google how to make a scarf that records the weather or how to finger knit a strap, skinny scarf or pet toy or make a stove from a tin can? The table of contents is worth its weight in gold for the ideas you can mine. The 214 things you can learn run the gamut in complexity, from relatively simple things like telling a sheep from a goat to rewiring a table lamp to building a homestead in and from the woods. They don’t seem to be in any particular order, but there is an index of skills by topic (Gardening, Well-Being, Nature, Food & Drink, Crafts, Animals, Sustainable Living, and Building) in the back of the book. There is also a traditional alphabetical index. The extensive credits could also lead you to further reading materials of interest.

Want to learn to speak chicken? That’s on pg. 130. It might not help you catch the chicken, but no worries. The book describes how to do that on pg. 132. Don’t have chickens? Maybe you have a favorite pair of socks with holes. This book will teach you how to darn them. More useful tips will steer you how to build a self-watering container for houseplants and dry your own fruit. Or, if you’re in the mood for something a little more whimsical. You can learn to make little projects from felted wool, like finger puppets or a cute little business card case. I’m thinking of making the latter to keep coupons in.

Whether you want to: be more independent (fix a flat bicycle tire, grow the most vegetables possible); be more eco-friendly (unclog a drain without chemicals, make your own toothpaste and hair conditioner); increase your own or another person’s relaxation (make a heavenly hammock, give a foot massage); be more interesting at parties (know birds by their songs, find your way around the night sky, capture a swarm of bees) there is something for nearly everyone in this book.

The next time someone asks me that question about being stranded on a deserted island with only one book, I will give serious consideration to this being my answer.

Nothing General About It: How Love (and Lithium) Saved Me On and Off General Hospital by Maurice Benard

Maurice Benard, the American actor of Salvadorian and Nicaraguan descent who has played the character Sonny Corinthos on the ABC soap opera General Hospital for twenty-seven years, has written a biography this year called Nothing general about it; how love (and lithium) saved me on and off General Hospital. The Emmy award-winning actor may not be known for his writing, but he gets real in this book and that is worth more than any award. He lays bare the ugly things he did while in the throes of bipolar disorder, a disease he has suffered from nearly his entire life. He is honest about his vulnerabilities and gives credit to the people in his life who have loved him through it all, especially his wife of 30 years, Paula, who had to endure some frightening moments with him. His story is a testament to how difficult and pervasive mental health problems can be, no matter how you look, where you’re from, how much money you make or what you do for a living.

In 2006, the writers of General Hospital revealed that the character Sonny Corinthos suffered from bipolar disorder. Since then, Benard has publicly advocated for mental health awareness on talk shows and with organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He is a spokesperson for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).

Fans of General Hospital or Benard will appreciate the full-color photographic insert, containing his and Paula Smith’s wedding photos, images of his four beautiful children, and members of the General Hospital cast. Readers who are dealing with their own or a loved one’s mental illness will likely find it relatable and insightful. You can check out his book in the Biography section at the Library at Eastern, or place a hold and have it sent to a location of your choosing.

PlantFinder

I want to tell you about an app that could be useful to you as you spend more time outdoors. This free app is called PlantFinder and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. I have it downloaded on my Android phone from the Google Play store but according to a search I did today on the Apple app store, it is also available for Apple products. Since it is free it does have ads, but you can pay a small subscription fee to avoid the ads if you prefer. The ads pop up after you take a photo of a plant and before it loads the results that display the plant’s name and identifying information. I try to remember to turn my phone’s volume down, otherwise it can be quite intrusive during a quiet nature walk.

I have used PlantFinder to successfully identify plants I see while walking trails. Sadly, many of them were invasive species. Examples from a recent outing include honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum), wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), and creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea). The results aren’t always as specific as I would like. For instance, I was hoping to refresh my memory on what variety of apple tree is growing in my back yard, but PlantFinder could only tell me that it is an “Apple tree,” rather than confirm if it was Honeycrisp or Zestar. I suppose that is only fair, as the fruit hasn’t even appeared yet. I have a Japanese dappled willow (Salix integra) in my front yard and when I snapped a photo of it to test it out on the app, it came back with the result, “Grey willow,” (Salix atrocinerea). Those are not exactly the same things, but it at least got the genus right. Sometimes, though rarely, PlantFinder can get it wrong. For instance, it thought my rose bush was a buckthorn. Perhaps when it blooms I’ll take another photo and get better results. Overall, however, I have been very pleased. It keeps a record of the photos, dates, plant names and details of what you have previously looked up. Access it by tapping “My Plants.” It also offers a “Plant Care” section that will help you keep track of watering & fertilizing frequency for the plants you cultivate at home.

In my opinion, the real test of usefulness is if it it can successfully identify poison ivy, which it did when I sought out and (fortunately? unfortunately?) found a rarer variety called Western Poison Ivy. I wondered if it would show a bright word of caution on the results page for plants like poison ivy that can cause rashes or allergic reactions, but it did not. So although it can successfully identify poison ivy, you still have to be reasonably savvy when you’re out there and take care not to touch any of the wild plants as you are taking photographs.

I would love to hear your comments if you decide to try this app after reading this, or if you are already familiar with it share your experiences. Have fun out there and stay safe!

The Wild Robot

An uncharacteristic thing has happened to this librarian lately: I haven’t felt much like reading. Of all the strange happenings in our world right now during this COVID-19 pandemic, this was yet another unexpected experience. I have no shortage of reading material. I have a reliable device I can use to download a variety of digital books. This seems like the perfect time to work my way through that looming stack of print books on my table waiting to be read.

And yet, my heart is just not in it. I sit down for about five minutes and then I am distracted and put it down and go do something else.

There has been one exception, however. I happened to be in the middle of reading The Wild Robot by Peter Brown with one of my children before bedtime each night before all this began. The chapters are short, and at one chapter a night, it was taking us a while to work our way through this 279-page book about a robot stranded on an island. But each night I read it aloud, the Wild Robot and its island populated by many animals and no humans endeared itself to me more and more.

You might think that reading a book with no humans in it during a pandemic is a lonely choice in an already lonely situation. Or perhaps on the contrary, you think it is a logical and fitting choice to read about being stranded on an island when it often feels exactly like that as we are isolated in our homes. I think there was something reflective about this mechanical protagonist who gradually (though paradoxically) becomes more humane through time and experience that captured my interest and my heart. Human interaction right now -when it does happen- is less warm and personal, more technological. Somehow the mirror image of a technological being becoming more warm and personal through challenging life experiences was a sort of balm to my woes.

Brown’s writing made reading effortless for me once again. His animal characters have unique personalities. The events that happen on his remote island, both tragic and joyful, are magically relatable. I have always been a fan of anthropomorphism. I am even more so now.

I wish I could point you to a digital version of this title that you can download immediately for free through the library, but our library currently only owns this in print. If you would like to request it for purchase in digital format, you can log into your library account using either the Libby or Overdrive apps and request this title. Be aware that it ends on a cliffhanger and you will probably want to read its sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes.

In the meantime, here are some similar books with anthropomorphic characters available digitally when you log into Overdrive with your Davenport Public Library account that you may enjoy:

Start French by Michel Thomas

If you find languages interesting, have I got a treat for you!  There is an excellent language learning series by Michel Thomas that is great listening!

I began with Start French. I always wanted to learn a little French, but it was offered during music class at my high school, so I could only choose one. I chose music and took an afternoon Spanish class for my foreign language. I’ve always found French to be a challenging accent to get, and reading the words on a page just didn’t work for me.

Enter Michel Thomas and his method.

When I popped his CD into my car, suddenly my commutes and errands turned into listening in on fun little conversations. He introduces basic words and phrases in a way that builds successively on one another, feels natural, and is a little easier to remember than trying to memorize nouns and conjugate verbs. He also relates the French word to the root of the English word, helping form connections in your brain to both words and their shared meaning.

After some time, I began talking with the recorded Thomas and enjoying being able to speak un peu de francais. I couldn’t help but share my discovery with family members and friends. My Dad wanted to try Start German. He has been listening to it before bed each night and greets the day with a guten Morgen!

This series is also currently available to check out in Irish, Italian, and Spanish. Also coming soon…Norwegian!

Play the Forest School Way by Jane Worroll and Peter Houghton

As I write this, many of us are at home doing our part to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Schools are not meeting in person for a few weeks, and many are going stir-crazy, wondering what to do with the extra “together” time at home.

I have an apt book to recommend: Play the Forest School Way: Woodland Games, Crafts and Skills for Adventurous Kids by Jane Worroll and Peter Houghton. (I love that the author of this book about being in the forest is named Jane. It’s so Tarzan.) Playing in the outdoors is something we can do with our families to get out an enjoy ourselves while still avoiding the spread of sickness among friends and neighbors.

This book is aimed at parents of primary school-age children but many of the activities can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Those of you who enjoy crafting will find ideas for making nature jewelry and whittling, among many other suggestions.

The idea of a “Journey Stick” is shared, where you collect items on your nature hike, affixing them to a stick (I imagine a hobo stick with a kerchief tied to the end). Use the found objects to re-tell the story of your outing or create a brand new one from your imagination!

For now, these ideas should be enjoyed in solitude or with the immediate members of your household, but you can remember and use them later while camping or with outdoor groups when it is safer to socialize again. With a little creativity, we can not only survive this quarantine but thrive if we learn to appreciate our immediate surroundings in ways we haven’t taken the time to do before.

If you like this book, you may want to check out A Year of Forest School: Outdoor Play and Skill-Building Fun for Every Season by the same authors.

 

 

Stolen Justice: The Struggle for African American Voting Rights by Lawrence Goldstone

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”              -Thomas Jefferson

An election year is an exciting time to be in Iowa. It is also a good time to take the opportunity to raise your awareness of the history of voting in our country.

Does it seem like a tall order to go out on a cold, dark night and spend several hours at a caucus when there is work to be done or family to look after at home?  Does it feel like a chore to remember to diverge from the usual daily route to go cast a vote on election day? I am reluctant to admit to you that it has, at times, been so for me.

We would do well to remember that so many before us have suffered mightily to secure such rights and bring us to where we are today. Let us pause this February -Black History Month- during this election year to reflect on the historical significance of African American voting rights in particular.

In his book Stolen Justice: The Struggle for African American Voting Rights, Lawrence Goldstone chronicles the struggles encountered and overcome by black Americans whose voting rights have been suppressed. Goldstone shows us many of the ways voter suppression and oppression has happened through violence, misinformation and even through the manipulation of laws.

Have you heard about the widely respected mid-19th century Harvard University professor by the name of Louis Agassiz who promoted a science called polygenism?  Polygenism purported that blacks and whites developed from different ancestors and that blacks were not even human. Agassiz and others like him imposed this idea as so-called proof that blacks were inferior and unsuited for anything but menial labor.  Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published in 1859 and changed that theory.  According to Goldstone, “Agassiz furiously condemned natural selection as ‘a crude and insolent challenge to the eternal verities, objectionable as science and abominable for is religious blasphemies.'” Though polygenism eventually died, racial inequity did not.

Learn more by checking this book out from the Learning Collection at The Library at Main.

Cannabis : The Illegalization of Weed in America by Box Brown

I recently saw a local news story in which Illinois state senator Toi Hutchinson said that the legalization of cannabis in her state came as a result of the differing sides “hashing it out” to come to agreement. I don’t know whether or not the pun was intended, but as a librarian interested in languages, I appreciated it.

Soon after, I spotted the graphic novel Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America on display at the library and figured it would be a good way to better educate myself on the topic right at our doorstep. I was not disappointed. This graphic novel has four pages of sources cited at the end! It is equal parts interesting and informative.

It starts with what is known about early humans’ use of cannabis sativa from biology and mythology. It outlines how the plant has been cultivated for its various uses across the world (think: textiles & oils too). It traces the etymology of the many different words we use for it: hash, Mary Jane, reefer, weed, to name just a few. I learned that the word marijuana is believed to be derived from slang usage in Mexico near Catholic missionaries, where the priests condemned its use. Locals would tell the priest they were just spending time with Maria Juana!

The graphic novel delves into the “Reefer Madness” era during which commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics Harry Anslinger worked to criminalize its use by making false, racist claims about its use and users. It discusses how cannabis has been regulated through legislation and how its reputation has been manipulated. The graphic novel concludes with present-day uses and a bibliography listing sixty sources readers can seek out for further learning on the subject.

I highly recommend this book and I look forward to reading Box Brown’s other titles, including Is This Guy for Real? The Unbelievable Andy Kaufman and Tetris: The Games People Play.

You can also learn more on this topic from Illinois Policy, an independent organization that seeks to educate and engage Illinois citizens.