2015 in Books, May

Another month’s worth of reading:

  • Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Berry
    • It took me from mid-March until the beginning of May to finish this behemoth. Berry wrote an exhaustive history of flooding on the Mississippi River, focusing his attention on the engineers who unwittingly created a problem, the 1927 flood, and the relief efforts. He shines specially attention on Greenville, MS, and New Orleans to show how the two cities were profoundly affected by the disaster. I knew that the flood was bad, but I did not understand the massive scale of the fallout or its profound impact on African American migration and national politics. I read this one at work in preparation for next summer’s Nature Unleashed exhibit.
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
    • I’ve watched the Disney version of Peter Pan a few times and Hook a few times more than that, but this was my first time reading Barrie’s classic. It was sadder than I expected with children falling out of perambulators, tertiary characters dying and the focus on how the Darlings felt about their children disappearing. None of those elements come across in Disney’s takes, but I found that they are what make the story a classic.
  • Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis by Preston Lauterbach
    • Let me preface this review by saying that I met Preston in the archives at the public library when I was doing some Piggly Wiggly research and he was going through newspaper microfilm. He helped me track down some information about 1915-1930 Beale, which I have been researching for the new permanent exhibits at the Pink Palace. This book gave me everything that I needed to understand how this relatively small area came to be the base of African American culture and politics in the Delta. It is well researched, interesting to read and full of anecdotes that make the reading fun. If you’re from Memphis or want to learn about a large piece of the city’s soul, read it. You won’t be disappointed.
  • Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
    • I thoroughly enjoyed Barnett’s take on rain, a topic I usually only consider when I desperately want it for my garden or to avoid it at an outdoor event. She approaches the subject with a mixture of science, environmental activism and cultural history. I think that she was at her best in her chapters on the recent drought in California and Colorado and the consequences of building in floodplains and historically drought-prone areas. Much like Mark Kurlansky, Barnett takes a broad topic and examines it in relation to multiple facets of science and human history. I received this book for the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.
  • The Water and the Wild by K.E. Ormsbee
    • This book was another from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. The Water and the Wild is aimed at ages 8-12, but it is an entertaining fantasy read for adults as well. Ormsbee creates a world parallel to Earth that is inhabited by sprites, will o’the wisps and fanged beasts. Lottie, the main character, has to learn the rules of Albion while going on a quest with her new acquaintances to retrieve a cure for her best friend back on Earth. Many of the characters are multi-dimensional; however, Adelaide, one of the young sprites, quickly begins to sound redundant with her focus on refinement. Overall, Ormsbee’s book is a well-written world for young readers, which is why I passed it on to my appropriately aged cousins.

2015 in Books, April

The sun is out, my kid isn’t teething, and there is gardening to do, which is my way of saying that I didn’t read as much this past month. I’ve always approached spring as a time of doing. Soon enough it will be too hot to think about moving. Until then, I play in the dirt.

  • Dog Stars by Peter Heller
    • I have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic books. Weird? Yes. Satisfying? Also yes. One of the challenges inherent in this genre is how to get readers to care when there is obviously no overarching happy outcome. The satisfaction has to come from small payoffs like putting in a garden or meeting a new person. Heller does these incremental changes well, which makes the book work on a deeper level than I was anticipating.
  • Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia
    • My first city planning book, sort of. Lydon and Garcia run a firm call Street Plans Collaborative, and this book is a manifesto of their professional ideas. They advocate doing small things within and outside of the law to make neighborhoods better places. The key is to have a plan with definable long term outcomes. Temporary changes in streetscapes, parking lots, and sidewalks can be used to mobilize community members, municipal workers and elected officials to generate the conversations and money to fund more permanent improvements. One of their examples was the New Face for an Old Broad event in Memphis. Several years after the pop-up event reimagined the street as an arts district with a music venue, public art, full storefronts and bike lanes, the area boosts a higher occupancy rate and permanent protected bike lanes through the partially crowdfunded Hampline project. This book got me thinking, and frankly made me really proud to live in a city that has seen tactical urbanism work.
  • Magical Thinking: True Storties by Augusten Burroughs
    • This one is a collection of Burroughs’ essays. Like a lot of biographical essay collections, the selections were hit or miss for me.
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
    • My neighborhood Little Free Library lent me Beautiful Ruins. I have been wanted to read it since it came out, but I never quite got around to it. After the other books on my docket, it was nice to read one that was a well-rounded work of fiction with a happy ending. Sometimes that’s exactly what I need to read.

2015 in books, March

March is weird. This past weekend I helped with a neighborhood clean up and it started snowing. The next day was 72 degrees and sunny. Similarly, my reading choices have been all over the place.

  • On This Day in Memphis History by G. Wayne Dowdy
    • I could have listened to Willy Bearden read me this book during the WKNO segments of NPR’s All Things Considered, but I decided to read it. It’s exactly what the title would lead you to believe– a historical blurb about things that happened in Memphis for each day of the year. It’s a good jumping off point for some of the research I’m doing at the museum.
  • The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
    • I forgot how much I enjoy reading fantasy. Nothing makes me vacate the ordinary like a new world with its own vocabulary and operating instructions. Robin McKinley creates a place with cohesive rules that provide structure and move the story forward. Rather than bog you down with the details, she jumps right in and lets the reader do some of the work of figuring out how Damar runs. I loved this story. Major thanks to my LibraryThing Secret Santa for the reminder.
  • Black No More by George Schuyler
    • Harlem Renaissance. 1931. Satire. Biting, unforgiving and funny.
  • Burton Callicott: A Retrospective by Ray Kass and the Brooks Museum of Art
    • This exhibition catalog from the Brooks Museum explains “…Callicott’s artistic development, which has always emphasized specific content, originally drawn from the physical, social and moral ‘backyard’ of contemporary Memphis…” I’m doing research about his early PWAP murals at the Pink Palace, which is what prompted me to read my first art catalog.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
    • Fantastically well written love story. Rowell’s descriptions of both main characters’ thoughts and feelings about their relationship rang intrinsically true. The way they over thought every aspect of sitting together or holding hands flew me straight back to my first boyfriend. It was a nice thing to remember. And it was even nicer to realize how far I’ve come.
  • 9 1/2 Narrow: My Life in Shoes by Patricia Morrisroe
    • I read this book for the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Patricia Morrisroe tells her personal story by reflecting on the shoes that she wore at certain points in her life. She is at her best when describing the history of particular shoe styles and relating that history to her memories. Some of the chapters work significantly better than others, but it is an overall worthwhile read if you like reading about style.
  • Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
    • I first read Karen Russell a few months ago when my boss loaned me Swamplandia! Much like that novel, this collection of short stories is well conceived and nicely written. The common theme throughout these stories is an element of the fantastical, whether it is vampires attempting to sate their thirst by sucking on lemons or several United States presidents trying to come to terms with their reincarnated horse selves. I especially liked her story that was set on the prairie a few years after the passage of the Homestead Act. The Act itself drove each person’s and phantasmagorical creature’s actions, and the end results are horrifying and thoughtful. All of the stories can stand independently, but it was nice to read them as a collected whole.

2015 in Books, February

I’ve been asked if I actually enjoy reading or if I just consume books. Frankly, I love everything about reading–the initial promise of the cover, the feeling of being wrapped in another person’s philosophy and emotions, the satisfaction of learning where these characters are going, and closing the book with the knowledge that it’s there if I ever want it again. I also go through phases with my reading. Sometimes I intersperse nonfiction and novels, other times I lean heavily to one side and abandon the other. On occasion, I will read one book at a time, but I usually have more than one going. Often I have a research  book underway at work, a novel that I left in the nursery, another book that I started so that I could have something to read and not wake up the toddler, and then one that I just got off of the library’s wait list on my Kindle. I also read very, very fast. Usually, I don’t skim or speed read, but I left graduate school with an incredibly fast reading pace. I had to unlearn how to “gut” books (read for the thesis and major supporting arguments and skim the examples), but I was ultimately left with the ability to read faster and deeper. Valuable skills, I can assure you.

I got poison ivy on my face this month, so I had a few days of binge reading while I tried desperately not to scratch my face. The steroid fueled read-a-thon also coincided with bad weather, which created a perfect storm of word absorbing.

    • Yes Please by Amy Poehler
      • Frankly, not as good as Bossypants by Tina Fey, but it was still a fun read. Poehler’s all over the place, but there are some great quotes that I had to highlight, among them, “I love my boys so much I fear my heart will explode. I wonder if this love will crack open my chest and split me in half. It is scary, this love.” Also, “A story carves deep grooves into our brains each time we tell it. But we aren’t one story. We can change our stories. We can write our own.” I can empathize.
    • Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
      • I really enjoyed this novel set between the 1927 Mississippi River flood and the early 1940s. Cheng’s sentences are beautiful, and his story invokes a world that is at once distant and yet relatable through characters’ emotions. He also handles ingrained racism deftly. I will definitely pick up Cheng’s next novel, which I hope is not too long in coming.
    • Fever Season by Jeanette Keith
      • Sometimes I take forever to read a book. I’m pretty sure I started this one at least eight months ago as my eating-lunch-alone-at-work book. Thankfully, I don’t have to do that very often. Keith wrote about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, and (like the best historians can do) she turned the historical actors into multidimensional people who helped or fled the city for a variety of internal and external reasons. She also does not shy away from gender or racial analysis. This book is a great compliment to Mary Caldwell Crosby’s American Plague about the larger scope of yellow fever epidemics. Speaking of Crosby…
    • The Great Pearl Heist by Mary Caldwell Crosby
      • What I like best about Crosby’s writing is the way she is able to make well researched facts read like the twists of a detective novel. She gives a glimpse of what 1913 London was like on the eve of World War I and tells a good story at the same time. Little Free Library win!
    • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
      • My LibraryThing secret santa sent me this novel in December. Since I had been hoping to read it ever since my coworkers gave it glowing reviews, I was pleasantly surprised to be gifted it. I loved it. Read it. You’ll be happy.
    • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
      • I once again struck gold in the Pink Palace’s Little Free Library. This one was armchair travel at its finest; Bill Bryson combines tourist traps, history, trivia and endless amounts of driving into something more than I thought possible. There’s a reason people pay him money to go far away and write about it.
    • Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett
      • Meh.
    • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
      • This book takes on North Korea as a setting with complicated results. Sad, but with staying power.

2015 in Books, January

I started off 2015 by finishing up a few stragglers from 2014:

  • Neverwhere: A Novel by Neil Gaiman
    • Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors; I have yet to read one of his books that did not capture my imagination. Neverwhere is set in London Below, the underground city that parallels London Above along the city’s subway tunnels. Like his best works, he asks you what is real and never answers his question.
  • The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man who Pulled off the Spectacle of the Century by Clare Prentice
    • This nonfiction work looks at the experiences of a group of Bontoc Igorot tribespeople from a remote area of the Philippines who spent over a year on exhibit in the United States in the early nineteenth century and Truman Hunt, their exhibiter turned prisoner. I saw a review in the local paper, which is when I learned that part of the resulting court proceedings took place in Memphis. It’s a good story, but the well researched nonfiction is mixed with too much journalistic license for my historian tastes.

I also started and finished some others:

  • How Carrots Won the Trojan War: Curious (but True) Stories of Common Vegetables by Rebecca Rupp
    • I really like vegetables, and this book was a fun mixture of science, popular culture and history. I hope she writes more general nonfiction because I’m in.
  • Under the Fragipani by Mia Couto
    • This short novel was written by a Mozambican author. I try to break out of my American and European oriented fiction reading when I can, so I was excited to find this book at the last Friends of the Library book sale. Couto combines magical realism with legend and history, which made for a different, but immensely worthwhile, experience.
  • What Objects Mean: An Introduction to Material Culture by Arthur Asa Berger
    • I read Berger’s textbook at the museum to fulfill my self-imposed theory reading requirement for the next few months.
  • Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries and Archives in the Digital Age by G. Wayne Clough
    • Surprisingly, not read for work. Clough is the Secretary of the Smithsonian, and I stumbled upon this free e-book while researching possible textbooks. It had been a while since I read any museum books, and we are working with technology upgrades in our redesign so I set aside some time for this one.
  • Against the Country: A Novel by Ben Metcalf
    • I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. Metcalf’s book combines rural noir genre writing with metafiction in a convoluted twist of run on sentences and large vocabulary choices. Like another reviewer, I thought that I would enjoy this book based on the publicity blurb about suicidal chickens and evil trees. However, I found his prose difficult to impossible to wade through at different junctures, particularly when his multiple parenthetical asides took up more space than the one paragraph main sentence of the chapter. The novel did grow on me towards the second half of the story, but it is not one that I would recommend.

Whatcha readin’?

For a brief moment this summer I was doing the impossible. I was only reading one book at a time. That may seem both unremarkable and exceedingly ordinary, but I am one of those readers who likes to cast my mind in multiple directions at once. I also tend to get on odd reading tracks. Last winter it was a spate of books about LDS. Or the summer before last when it was novels set during WWII in Britain. I never plan these things, my brain just goes there on its own.

The solo book streak is over, though, and I am back to my version of normal. I read (a lot) at work. My museum reading is currently Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages by Neil Harris, which deals with the “lifespan,” in human terms, of buildings. Basically, it’s about buildings’ biographies. I’m also reading Fever Season: The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People Who Saved a City by Jeanette Keith. This one is about the yellow fever epidemic that hit Memphis in 1878, an event which had profound repercussions for the city over the next several decades. It’s the foreground to the narrative that I’m working on for our new exhibits, and I’ve been working on it for months. I mostly read it when I’m eating lunch alone, which thankfully doesn’t happen very often.

On the home front, I finished Augusten Burrough’s Possible Side Effects this morning. I love humor essays, and I’m glad to have very belated discovered him. I am working my way through Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. I have never read a history quite like it, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. It is also a massive tome, so I anticipate that I’ll be reading through it for quite a while. I’m also reading Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities by Michael Lesher. Quite the departure from the other books, no? I received an early reviewer copy from LibraryThing, and, while heavy in both a legal and tragic way, it is also very interesting. Lesher is moving beyond the descriptive works that came before his and offering analysis about why there are problems with reporting child abuse in these communities. The topic is quite removed from what I normally read, and I like it.

To sum it up, I read a lot. I like to jump topics, and I’ve never had any problems reading more than one thing at once. Consider it a byproduct of all those years of formal education. What’s the difference between reading a book for English class as well as one at home and choosing to read more than one at a time? Someday I’ll be down to reading one book again, but my guess is that it will be a while.

Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe

Alice + Freda Forever: A Memphis Murder was a dual purpose read for me. I bought a copy for the museum’s library for some obvious reasons. It happened in Memphis and is relevant to our mission to education the public about the cultural history of the Mid-South. We are also trying to pump some new life into our staff library by introducing some new material. I imagine that many people who read the book will be learning about Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward’s story for the first time. I’ve known about them for several years since I first found about Freda’s murder while doing research for the museum. Honestly, since I am a historian who works in and on Memphis, it would be a little weird if I hadn’t found out their story before this book. So I read it for work. I also read it because it’s interesting. There aren’t many LGBT histories about Memphis; off the top of my head, this book brings the total up to two. It’s also written in an interesting manner with a healthy dose of illustrations and contextualized letters from the two principle actors.

I thought Coe researched the book well. She definitely utilized the Memphis’ rich archives, which shows clearly in her extensive bibliography. She also does a good deal of racial, gender and class analysis, which I particularly liked as a social historian. At points, the illustrations border on distracting. However, there are a few key points in the narrative where they serve a real purpose, specifically in the section about the trial to show the difference in how Alice was portrayed by the newspapers.

There is one glaring problem with the book that I am surprised neither Coe nor her editors caught. At more than one point in the narrative, she mentions that Memphis is in East Tennessee. Absolutely not. Not even a little. Memphis is the largest city in West Tennessee. It might not seem like a big deal, and the first mention I shrugged off, but it kept happening. At one point she even talked about a doctor from “nearby” Knoxville. Other side of the state. The reason this matters is because Tennessee is a very long state, and the historical realities of East Tennessee are different from West Tennessee. To put it in context, Memphis is closer to St. Louis, MO, than it is to Knoxville. This lack of geographical understanding gave me serious pause and made me question Coe as a writer. I think that her analysis of the facts stands up, but as a local historian, I’m disappointed that no one looked at a map.

Admittedly, this is a small quibble in the light of an otherwise well researched and interesting book.


I am going to take a moment to discuss my new hobby by writing a completely unsolicited and gushing post. If you are a bibliophile, you might already be familiar with the site LibraryThing. I got reacquainted with the website recently through my work at the museum. One of my longterm (very longterm) projects is creating a digital catalogue of the staff library. The decision to use LibraryThing for that project led me to start my own library. The tagline “LibraryThing is an ocean” is true beyond my initial understanding of what you can do on the site.

For example, I love bizarre statistics that are in some way based in reality. My book stack is currently 86.2 feet tall (slightly higher than the Sphinx) and weighs 8,075 pounds. That is 0.03393 the weight of a blue whale. My library is about 60% male authors to 40% female with more alive authors than dead ones. History, classic literature, dystopian, fantasy, nonfiction, young adult and humor are the tags that come screaming out of my tag cloud.

I’ve gotten a few helper badges for adding to the common knowledge section of the site and adding in the locations of Little Free Libraries. I even joined the Early Reviewer program and received a copy of How to Make Your Baby and Internet Celebrity by Rick Chillot. Admittedly, it is not a book that I would have picked out on my own, but I enjoyed it. It is a quick, afternoon read that occasionally made me laugh out loud. I found the middle section to be the funniest, and I read portions aloud to Greg. In case it struck your interest, I recommend giving this book as a gift to any social media maven in your life who has or is expecting a little one. Just make sure that you get it to them before their kid is older than one and therefore useless for internet celebrity purposes.

Greg has fantasy football; I have LibraryThing. There is peace in the kingdom.

Reading again

I usually read without ceasing. I jump from one finished book to a new one without pausing. I have books waiting in the wings, magazines flagged for consumption and a constant mental list of what I want to read (which currently includes Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay). Except for this summer. I periodically go through lags when I just don’t read as much. My job involves a lot of research, so I still read everyday at work, but sometimes I find other things to do at home. This summer it’s been shelling peas and making jam and pickles and playing with my kiddo. 

[This seems like a good place to mention that I do read at home everyday to the baby. We read a lot of Sandra Boyton, Nancy Tillman, Dr. Seuss and an assortment of things from his ever expanding library. I’m talking about reading grownup books. So nobody go all judgmental or paranoid on me.]

Now with all that preamble out of the way, I can say that I picked up some leisure books again. I recently finished Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey. Fortey is the retired trilobite man at the British Natural History Museum. I found this book as part of my reorganization efforts at work. I thoroughly enjoyed his biographical sketches of some of the former curators and Keepers–the most excellent museum job title around–and his explorations of the museum building itself. Of less interest to me personally was his impassioned defense of was taxonomy (the correct naming of species) matters. He makes a compelling argument for why names matter, but after he made that point, I really just wanted more about the weird geeks who have worked at the BM. 

I also read the highly intellectual The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. I found it in my neighborhood’s Little Free Library, and it seemed like a good vacation book. I don’t normally read historical fiction because I find myself getting really pissy when authors don’t get the actual history right. Gregory definitely did her research though–as the long list of sources in the back attests. It was a fun read and a perfect for the lake. I’ll probably read some of her other books because I want to. I have found that the absolute beauty of reading lies in not having to defend my reading choices to anyone, including myself.

I am currently reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. It is a loan that I am really enjoying. I like the way that Riggs is combining found photographs and storytelling. It is making for a compelling and entertaining story. Some of the plot, especially the time bending, seems needlessly confusing, but I like the characters. At this point, I’m hoping they all make it to the next sequel.

So that’s what I’m reading at home when I have some spare minutes.

$ and cents

One gift we were given at our wedding two and a half years ago was a book called Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach. It was siting on a shelf and then put in a box and then reshelved before I finally made it a point to read it. It’s the first self-help book I’ve ever read.

Other than Bach’s annoying tendency to use trademarks in the middle of sentences, it’s concise and well written. The point that I took away from it is that it is important to own your financial future and make sure that your decisions (financial and otherwise) are in line with your personal values. These are things I knew before I cracked the spine, but Bach’s pitch motivated me to do things I had been putting off. Like making our wills. Can I honestly say that I value my family’s security if I don’t have a valid will in place?

I feel better about a number of things after reading and really thinking and talking about the points that were made. I am confident that I won’t be making a habit out of self-help books, but I am very glad that I finally read this one.