Top Books of 2015

Since it is nearing the end of the year, I’m going to spend a few blog posts talking about the best media I’ve read/seen this year. It won’t be a top ten list because some media will have more than 10 and some will have fewer.

From these lists, I will exclude movies and books that I’ve read or seen before. I just finished my rereading the Harry Potter series and watched most of the original Star Wars. I don’t think I have to convince people to read/watch those. And yes, Harry Potter  is still as great (maybe even greater) than when I read it several years ago. Star Wars is also still good but not in the same way that HP is.

This year, I decided to keep track of all the books that I’ve read and grade each one. So the following is a list of the books that received an A or A+.

Best Books (chronologically ordered by when I read them)

  1. The Magicians, Lev Grossman – This is the first book of a trilogy that is about a world of magic where teenagers deal with sex, drugs, ennui, etc. in a way Harry Potter doesn’t. Very well constructed world that riffs off other magical worlds in clever ways.
  2. Department of Speculation, Jenny Offill – This book is one of those most heartbreaking and beautifully written books I’ve read all year. It’s about a woman trying to understand her life and art as her marriage begins to crumble. It was hard for me to read at times, and reduced me to tears, but it is so worth it.
  3. The Elephant Whisperer, Lawrence Anthony – This nonfiction book records Lawrence Anthony’s adventures with a pack of rogue elephants on his reserve in South Africa. One day out of the blue, he got a call asking if he wanted about a dozen elephants. However, if he didn’t take them, they’d be shot. It’s an incredible story about elephant and man.
  4. Phoebe and her Unicorn  and Unicorn on a Roll, Dana Simpson – This YA comic and its sequel is about a young girl who meets a unicorn, named Heavenly Nostrils, and befriends it. The book is described as a new take of Calvin and Hobbes and I think it is fair. It’s a charming series that anyone, young and old, either gender, can get into.
  5. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Karen Abbott – Karen Abbott is one of my favorite history writers. She focuses on incredible women in US history that have been lost to the main narrative of American history. Previously, she wrote on the Everleigh Sisters, madams of the Levee district in the Chicago, and Gypsy Rose Lee. This current book deals with four women in the Civil War who act as spies and other roles. Two women are from the North and two are from the South. It’s a wonderful story of bravery and daring-do in the time of war.
  6. The Penelopiad,

    Margaret Atwood – Another book that was beautiful and painful to read. It tells Penelope’s story from the

    Odyssey and Iliad from her perspective. Alternating chapters are in Penelope’s voice and her doomed 12 maidens. Stunning.

  7. A Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith – So yes, a J.K. Rowling book snuck on. When I read Harry Potter, I knew that she had the making of an incredible murder mystery writer. A Cuckoo’s Calling showed that. It’s a great detective series start with Cormoran Strike, an Afghanistan vet who lost his leg in the war. In this case, he attempts to understand the possible suicide of a star model.
  8. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, Sharma Shields – This book begins with a young boy watching his mother walk out on his father and him with a man he thinks is Sasquatch. The book beautifully interweaves his lifelong obsession with Sasquatch and his family, all dealing with sometimes nefarious magic.
  9. Consider the ForkBee Wilson – Since I like reading books about history of objects, I devoured this book about cooking utensils. The book looks at tools in the kitchen: pots, spoons, fire, knives and forks. It’s a fascinating way to look at history through these objects.
  10. Heads or Tales, Lilli Carré – This is an exquisite set of short stories in graphic novel form. The graphics are simply astonishing and the stories are full of magic and gravitas.
  11. Wild Seed, Octavia Butler. – This was my first book of Octavia Butler’s, known for her incredible science fiction. It’s an incredible story about Anyanwu, a woman who is a shapeshifter, who encounters a powerful vicious spirit named Domo who is trying to breed his magical race of humans. It’s a beautiful consideration of slavery, love and death, family and duty.
  12. Champagne, Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup – This book is a great and fascinating history of champagne. It’s a tale of invention, daring-do, and much more. The authors wrote Wine and War that looked at the wine industry under the Nazis in WWII. Champagne is a great addition to their history works.
  13. Step Aside Pops, Kate Beaton – Web cartoonist Kate Beaton published her third (second) collection of her comics. These are full of history, literature, philosophy. Extremely silly and erudite. Everything I could have wanted!

That’s all for now!

Washington, DC in July: Part 3

Now I’ll talk about the second half of the museums we enjoyed on July 4th in DC. OUr next stop was the National Museum of American Indian.I had never been to this museum before. In front there was a Peruvian folk festival that had food, music, and artisanal crafts. It was really neat to see it up and running on July 4th. We ate lunch there but it wasn’t terribly good. (I should have held out for someone who sold ceviche!)

In the museum, we headed upstairs to the top floor to check out two exhibitions. The first was “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World.” It was one of the most breathtaking exhibitions I’ve been to. The main hall of it had a ceiling mimicking the night sky. So many stars. The exhibition looked at how different indigenous groups viewed the world. There were these little offset rooms that were dedicated to different tribes like the Mapuche. It was a wonderful way to present the philosophy/theology of various groups. My only complaint was that I was not sure where some of the groups were located. But it’s well worth a visit.

Night sky in ExhibitionAwesome skull from Mexico (i think)

Next we went to “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” It reviewed eight treaties that the US eventually (or quickly) broke. It’s a very important exhibition. I liked how it gave two perspectives in each display. One for the American Indian Nation involved and one for the US. While I have some knowledge of Native American history, it was astonishing to see the same pattern: treaty is made, kept for a time, and then broken. Century after century. THere was one exhibit that talked about how a treaty was better than no treaty as in the case of California where things were even worse for the various tribes without a treaty. It’s really a very important exhibition and well worth checking out.

Then we decided to check out the Natural History Museum. Because dinosaurs. This was the first museum that we had to wait in line outside for more than 5 minutes. The parade was over and everyone was heading to the popular museums like Air and Space. But once we got inside, we made a beeline for the dinosaurs. We did walk through an incredible exhibition of National Geographic photos of Africa. What incredible shots! It made me yearn to go back there again! One shot was a lizard with an extended tongue catching a fly. What an incredible shot! We finally found the dinosaurs, which was much smaller than either of us remembered. We said hi to the T-Rex and Triceratops and got the heck out of dodge. So crowded!


Our last two museums were the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, both housed in the same building. Unsurprisingly, there was no line to get into the museum. There was an awesome exhibit of photographs of current celebrities. There was a truly spectacular shot of Renee Fleming, luxurious and free. I got to see a little exhibition on Dolores Huerta, Latina leader in the California farm workers movement of the 1960s and 70s. I hadn’t really heard of her before but she was co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers. Very cool. My fiance was keen to check out the photos of generals from the Civil War. I spent some time contemplating an awesome shot of Busby Berkeley and another photo of Nat King Cole. We also wandered through the presidential portraits as my fiance tried to come up with jokes for each one.

Our visit to the American Art Museum was quick. We saw this impressive piece with all 50 states license plates with the Preamble of the Constitution. There was also this magnificent shrine made of tin foil and other similar materials in the folk section. (I think it was:James Hampton’s spiritual sculpture, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly of the Nations’ Millenium General Assembly) And there were some lovely Hoppers.

License Plates and the Preamble Tin foil Shrine

That’s all for now! Next we’ll talk about our adventures in Alexandria, VA.

May in Washington DC: Part 1

Our next trip was Washington DC. We were there for a wedding but we spent all of our free time visiting museums and hiking. Overall, it was a good trip but the first day of the trip was a bit more exciting than we had originally anticipated.

It started a bit rough when our checked bag on Frontier was returned to us covered in sticky green goo. We think someone’s mouthwash leaked from their bag into ours. Many of our clothes were stained bright green. We tried talk to Frontier but after an hour of arguing, they did nothing. They claimed that the stains were normal wear and tear. Having flown 100s of times, I can assure you that this was the first time this had ever happened to us. If it were something in our bag that leaked, that would be our fault. This was not the case. We also learned that we had four hours to make a complaint but the staff of Frontier at the airport refused to file the complaint and were unsympathetic and frankly rude. I tried calling their Customer service line, which was a joke. I first  connected to “Complaints and Complements”, but when I told the representative what happened, he informed me that he was just reservations and could do nothing. He transferred me to the correct department and was told my the automated system that there was a hold time of an hour. So I stayed on hold for over 1 hour and 18 minutes until my phone battery gave out. We will never fly Frontier again. Ever.

After this fruitless battle with the machinations of Frontier, we proceeded with our plans to go to Virginia to visit Civil War battlefields. We first stopped by a BBQ place that looked promising. I love BBQ; I really can’t get enough of it. The sign had a pig in a chef’s hat holding a knife. I ended up ordering some Carolina BBQ, which was delicious. I had some corn bread on the side and hush puppies. Very tasty. We then decided to head to Chancellorsville to check out the battlefield there. That was where Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot and later died from those wounds.

When we got out of the car, it was delightfully warm. Steam was actually coming off the pavement and the roof of the Welcome Center. We wandered around the little museum there. We learned about “War Trees” that were trees that had gotten hit by a cannon ball (and maybe bullet) that just stayed in the tree. I hope there is a metal song somewhere called “War Trees.”

We took a short hike around the Visitor Center to see the memorials built to Stonewall Jackson. There was a newer one that looked fairly standard. And then there was an old one that had aged badly.

Then we began the longer hike through the battlefield. We had been told it was 3.5 miles which sounded perfect. We were surrounded by tall trees with a green undergrowth that made it look a little prehistoric. We kept finding frogs hanging out on or near the path. We then saw a deer running through the woods. Wonderfully pastoral. We also found battlements built by the soldiers for the war.

Chancellorsville, VA

As we were about 1/3 of the way through the hike, we heard lightning. I inquired if this was something we should be concerned about but we thought that we’d be fine.  But then we encountered a clearing when the rains came. It was light rain at first but then it became an all out downpour. The rains were unrelenting and there was no place to hide. Upon reflection, we should have immediately turned back when the rains came. But we didn’t.


As we wandered along the paths, the water began rising. And then the lightning sounded a little too close for comfort. At one point, we smelled burning that suggested lightning had struck a tree not too far away from us. We could hear the cracks of lightning and the thunder. I was rather concerned about the rising water; would it be conductive? But we couldn’t stay put, there was no place to take cover, especially under trees struck by lightning. There was even a turtle swimming in the hiking path, which would have been cool if I hadn’t been freaked out. I also tried to hope that nothing else was in the water, namely snakes. At one point, I actually saw lightning strike a tree about 20 feet in front of me. That was absolutely terrifying. My instincts kicked in and told me to get the hell out of the forest. So I started walking faster through this never-ending hiking path to find our car. I don’t know how long we were in the storm but it was the longest and most miserable hike I’d ever been on. I’m really glad this was not my first experience hiking since it would have made me swear off it forever. But fear not, I’ll definitely go back.

When we finally got back to the safety of the car, I was relieved we had survived. I never want to hike with a thunderstorm nearby again. It wasn’t thrilling. It was nice to be inside out of the rain. We were drenched to the bone; nothing was dry on our bodies. And that’s when we assessed our electronics. I had inexplicably decided to take my cell phone and two cameras with me on the hike. I asked my friend to hang on to my good camera under his thick jacket with his own fancy camera. Thankfully, they seemed okay. Kudos to him! My other camera didn’t look good and my cell phone was in bad shape. All of us were in the same boat with the phones.

We stopped at the first Target to purchase towels, clothing (since we had green stained clothes), and snacks. After our harrowing experience, I decided to buy Cotton Candy Oreos. That was a good decision. If you ate only one side with the filling, it tasted like Cotton Candy should. We demolished them within two days.

I was super excited to check into our room in Maryland. We discarded all the wet clothing. My fiancé discovered that the green goo did come out so at least our clothing wasn’t ruined. Our suitcase wasn’t in good shape and a purse of mine had stains on the back. But given that the fiancé had packed a white suit for the wedding, we were damn lucky.

After hanging out all the clothing to dry, we decided to check out Silver Springs. We were in the downtown, which seemed full of chain stores. We found a Nando Chicken, which is a South African chain that is about to open in Chicago. We opted for it since it was different from the usual chains nearby. It was rather tasty. I ordered chicken with a mango lime sauce. They have a bunch of sauces on the side that you can try in addition to what you ordered. I was fond of the lemon one. And the Peach Sangria was what the doctor ordered. What a day.

So that’s all for now!


Newberry Library Exhibit

Yesterday, I got to spend a little more time at the Newberry Library’s “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.” It’s a collection of printed materials, paintings, sheet music, letters and more from the Civil War. I’m not the biggest Civil War buff but I did enjoy it because it showed some alternative perspectives.

There were various caricatures and drawings throughout the exhibition that really pummeled home different aspects of the civil war. THere was a drawing criticizing Great Britain for continuing to trade the South for its cotton despite England’s role in stopping the slave trade. It showed John Bull talking to a Southerner while a slave is literally trapped in a bale of cotton. Very potent piece. There were text-based pieces but I’m a visual person so I’ll mostly talk about those.
 The exhibition also discussed the violence against Native Americans during the war. I’ve learned in my studies is that war tends to increase the general level of violence in society, not just on the battle field. Rates of domestic abuse go up so it made sense that there were more battles with Native Americans. There was an incredible drawing that showed the hanging of 38 Dakota Indians from “crimes” perpetuated during the Dakota War. It was allegedly the largest execution in US history ordered by Lincoln. He did commute the sentences of 256 men though. Regardless, there was a big trial but it was very one-sided. There was little representation for the Dakotan Indians. It reminded me a bit of the Haymarket Riot trial and its martyrs. Sad that I didn’t even know about it until today. Read more.
There was also discussion about women during the war. Envelope art was apparently a thing. One envelope had a little drawing of a woman with the phrase “If I cannot fight, I’ll feed those who do.” It was that wonderful time of negotiation between women’s roles of domesticity and needs of the nation. Women may complete essential tasks of sewing, caring for the sick, etc, but it wasn’t limited to the domestic sphere previously. Though I did learn about women marching on a courthouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania against the draft. So there is that. I also learned a bit about two Chicagoans, Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge, who were important in the Chicago Sanitary Commission during the war. I’m going to have to read a bit more about them but it’s neat to find some new names to read. They also wrote about their experiences during the war. Excellent.
There were some lovely paintings and drawings too. Many were by Winslow Homer. There is a wonderful one that starts the exhibit, called “Banner in the Sky” by Frederich Church (1861). It shows a red menacing sky but in the middle, the clouds make the picture of an American flag. It’s really lovely. It’s a nice depiction of this idea that we live and breathe patriotism. Even our landscape does too! There is another painting “On Guard” by Winslow Homer. It shows a boy in the countryside, seemingly far from battle. But he’s waiting, perched on his seat for something to happen. It’s a nice reminder of how the home front and war front are connected.
So it’s an interesting exhibition and worth checking out. But it closes March 24th so time is running out. There is a digital component so you can check it out here. But it’s always better in person.

Newberry Library and Civil War Music

Newberry Library is another one of those  classic Chicago places. It’s an independent library that has an amazing collection, which includes the famous Mayan text, the Popal Vuh, the Mike Royko letter collection, and wondrous maps. They are also known for their genealogical collection. You can’t take any books home but you can get a free library card and make use of their collections on site. The only time I’ve ever really made use of their collection upstairs was to borrow a book about vaudeville. I remember reading about various vaudeville acts involving animals; notably, there was one act who used lots of cats. Talk about herding cats.

The library has excellent programming. The Newberry library has a huge book sale in July, with an impressive assortment of books from murder mysteries, history books, children’s books and even records.  Most things are  reasonably priced, In conjunction with the sale, there is the famous Bughouse Debates in the square across the street on the Saturday. Bughouse Square was famous for people giving speeches on soap boxes back in the early 20th century (and possibly later?). This Newberry event commemorates the freedom of speech so people of all different beliefs talk about a variety of subjects, from the deficit to food truck regulation. It’s a wonderful time. We’ve participated in them for the past few years as historical characters and moderators. It’s a highlight to the summer.

There is a few rooms for a special exhibits, which are just wonderful. Several years ago, it was illuminated manuscripts which are a personal favorite. Right now, there is an exhibit called “Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.” I only had a chance to briefly wander through it but it looks fantastic. It starts with some sheet music that was created just after the battle or engagement at Fort Sumter. There are fascinating caricatures that show attitudes about the war, race, and much  more. I hope to have a chance to go back and spend some more time.

In addition to these exhibits, there are splendid programming. In conjunction with the Civil War exhibition, there was a lecture and performance on civil war music on Saturday. It was well worth attending. Historian Christian McWhirter talked about his research in his book Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War. He talked about one incredible aspect of American exceptionalism: instruments were affordable to the middle classes. In Europe, only the real wealthy could afford things like pianos and sheet music. Here, people could have instruments and it really changed the fabric of the music scene.

Group singing was also a much more important and regular feature in life.  Mr. McWhirter explained that the songs that did the best were the ones that were easy to remember, and had more flexible lyrics. The famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was not very popular during the war because it isn’t easy to sing. It gained popularity afterwards. I think the historian said about 5000 songs were published in the North while only 1000 or so were published in the South. But this was professional songwriters, so the numbers of amateur songwriters is probably much higher. Plus the South had a shortage on paper which may explain the differential. Some songs were very racists, making fun of African-Americans or the accents of Europeans like the Irish and Germans.

To accompany the talk, there were three singers, a man and two women, and a pianist. They sang some old favorites, like the “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and new favorites like “We’ll Go Down Ourselves,” which is a song written in the perspective of Northern Women who are so loyal they want to fight themselves. (While the event was a one time event, the performers did record songs that you can hear in the exhibition). The event ended with everyone, including the audience, singing “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was spectacular.

If you haven’t been, go check out the Newberry. And consider making use of its collection. It’s such a Chicago gem.