The sophomore season of Donald Glover’s cult-favorite TV show "Atlanta" kicked off yesterday, continuing the story of Earnest “Earn” Marks and his struggle to make money (and sense) in an often absurd world. It’s likely one of Glover’s lesser-known works among his renaissance-man slate of music and acting—such as playing Lando Calrissian in an upcoming "Star Wars" spin off.
Though the comedy doesn’t have the clout of a celebrated galactic saga, it’s nonetheless a complex and enjoyable piece of storytelling. Television has earned increasing recognition as a true art medium— going beyond its reputation as just entertainment— and Glover’s layered vision of modern city life convincingly furthers this trend.
With the new season underway, I’ve found some analogs in the fiction stacks that backlight the somewhat familiar literary underpinnings of "Atlanta."
The show could be described, in part, as a Gothic family drama; Earn and his girlfriend Vanessa are in a precarious on-again-off-again relationship while attempting to raise a child together. Their romantic posturing and conflicts, while sometimes darkly funny, never let the audience forget that a young life hangs in the balance. Earn’s mix of money problems and interpersonal shortcomings result in a family fighting the urge to crumble, not unlike Emily Brontё’s "Wuthering Heights" or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "The House of Seven Gables." The streets of Atlanta are certainly a big, but very welcome, shift from the estates and manors of the classics.
In a similar fashion, the ambitions of Earn and his cousin, up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, recall the archetypes of celebrated Western literature. Their urban surroundings are a harsh and unforgiving landscape, and life is simply not easy. As the pair tries to make it big, they run up against underhanded promoters, rival rappers, and the quagmire that is modern public relations and social marketing. There isn’t a lot of violence, but it’s demonstrated as a necessary part of rugged life. The epic cattle drive of Larry McMurtry’s "Lonesome Dove" is a surprisingly apt comparison in many ways.
Going beyond plot themes, a dash of magical realism is one of the most refreshing facets of the production. In one episode, local celebrity Marcus Miles — who is otherwise a totally unimportant character — has an invisible car. It doesn’t affect the plot in a meaningful way, and its impossible existence isn’t confronted at any point. For me, this immediately brought to mind Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the master of the genre, in particular his short story, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.”
"Atlanta" breaks from conventional TV standards in more ways, too, sprinkling in moments of post-modern weirdness and surrealism. The episode “B.A.N.” upends the typical narrative style, transforming it into thirty minutes of a talk show within the show’s universe — with hilarious results. The writing shines when it turns to social satire; T. Geronimo Johnson’s excellent and challenging "Welcome to Braggsville" comes to mind whenever issues of race are engaged. I can’t help but imagine Kurt Vonnegut would be a fan of the show as well.
To be clear, Glover isn’t standing on the shoulders of giants, by any means. Though there are surely some direct literary influences at play, the artistic rendering of "Atlanta" is its own thing.
Personally, I can’t wait to see where we’re taken this season. The team wasn’t afraid of taking risks to begin with, and I hope that innovation continues as they seamlessly join humor and drama, questioning whether this world is as rationale as it appears. Books are definitely my favorite, don’t worry, but television of this caliber proves that a nuanced introspection on life can go beyond the pages.
-Eli Hoelscher is a Readers’ Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.
There is nothing that brings me such unbridled joy as a richly written, atmospheric historical fiction novel. I have never been one to wish for times past, because I am a modern lady who enjoys modern amenities such as public works systems, vaccinations and air conditioning units.
However, I certainly do take delight in visiting other times and places, whether they be drab or fab. Historical fiction is an all-encompassing genre that features a variety of cultures and time periods and locations — to narrow the scope, I’ve come up with a pair of titles that are linked by their country, some general themes, and are best when paired with a cup of tea.
"The Fair Fight" by Anna Freeman
This book was all the rage several years ago on Booktube, so mostly I was afraid to pick it up for fear it would be a similar situation as to "Burial Rites" by Hannah Kent (a book that is often lauded but, for the record, one which I firmly detest). Female pugilists in late 1700's England — a story about overcoming your situation, gaining independence and the lasting power of female friendship? Surely the book itself is good in theory, but executed poorly, right? It really couldn’t be as phenomenal as it sounds, right? Wrong.
The story is gripping and surprisingly fast-paced considering the setting, and the characters are so compelling I became emotionally attached in an instant. "The Fair Fight" mainly follows two strikingly different female characters: Ruth, a scrappy, smart-mouthed individual who was born in the brothel her mother now runs, who isn’t quite pretty enough to be considered useful like her much more beautiful older sister; and Charlotte, who is born to immense wealth and privilege, but whose physical appearance is ravaged by smallpox, making her marriage and social prospects nonexistent.
The two come from polar opposite backgrounds, but their worth as women transcends their aesthetic beauty and their ability to serve other people. Ruth's fierceness and her indefatigable resolve to forge her own destiny and Charlotte’s cleverness and her ability to never be quite as she seems makes them both remarkable additions to the genre, and ones worth rooting for. I literally cheered once I reached the ending. To use a terrible pun, this one is a real knockout.
"As Meat Loves Salt" by Maria McCann
This is the book that ended my Great Reading Slump of ‘17. I have always considered myself to be a voracious reader, but last year, prior to this magnificent tome, I was relegated to anxiously picking through random books only to give up on them minutes later. It was frustrating, to say the least. Recommended to me by a wonderful friend whose reading taste is always impeccable, I knew "As Meat Loves Salt" would be a standout read, but I underestimated just how truly excellent it would be.
Set during the English Revolution, this novel is, to put it bluntly, a total assault on the senses. Maria McCann’s narrative style is visceral and immersive, even grotesque in its realistic descriptions of everyday life in the 1600’s. In spite of (or perhaps because of that), her prose is gorgeous. She has created a main character, Jacob, who for all intents and purposes is a despicable, beastly young man whose only goal in life is to better his situation without ever considering the humanity of others.
It should be easy to hate him, though the author presents him in such a way that you will find yourself sympathizing with him, even when he is vulgar or terrifying. This complicated relationship between reader and protagonist leads to moments of such bittersweet delight when Jacob is inexplicably kind, or intense sorrow when he is heart-broken over his impulsive actions. I found myself wishing for a better life for him, even though he might not deserve it. Maria McCann is a genius author — "As Meat Loves Salt" has been described as her literary masterpiece, and I am inclined to agree.
— Kimberly Lopez is a readers' services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Mushrooms are the new superfood craze you may not have heard of yet. Though they’ve been used medicinally for thousands of years for things like boosting the immune system and reducing inflammation, they’re only now becoming popular in mainstream culture due to the immense research that’s been done to assess their health benefits.
Tero Isokauppila’s "Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health" lays out all the things you need to know about the most advantageous mushrooms and includes 50 easy recipes utilizing specific varieties.
For example, Isokauppila notes that reishi are considered the queen of mushrooms and deliver myriad health advantages, including helping with sleep problems and seasonal allergies. They've been a regular part of Chinese medicine for at least 2,000 years, so your well-being is sure to reap the rewards, according to the book.
Struggling to ward off a cold or lower inflammation from your busy life? Chaga is here to assist you. It's one of the highest sources of antioxidants in the world, with an antioxidant content more than 50 times higher than that of blueberries, which are commonly considered one of the ultimate sources of antioxidants we can consume.
Cordyceps are said to increase physical performance and energy, and they can even alleviate asthma or bronchitis. Historical lore from the Himalayan areas where they grow in the wild tells us that yak herders observed their herds becoming far more active and playful when they grazed fields where cordyceps grew.
Lion’s mane mushrooms are among the most fascinating varieties discussed in "Healing Mushrooms." Their ability to improve memory, boost concentration, and protect your nervous system has many people regularly supplementing in pill form. There is even compelling evidence that suggests they have strong Alzheimer’s-fighting properties. You can buy these in pill form from health food stores such as Natural Grocers.
Shiitake are the most common medicinal variety of mushroom cultivated in the world. Local growers at Wakarusa Valley Farm regularly supply our community with freshly grown, organic shiitakes among several other varieties. Beyond their ability to lower cholesterol and support your liver, they’ve been shown to have incredible results with skin-related issues like acne. It may be time to introduce your hormonally challenged teenager to these beauties!
There’s a lot to learn from natural medicine, and mushrooms are gaining the lead in terms of promising research. Once you know which varieties you want to try out, Isokauppila offers tons of recipes to help you incorporate them into your diet. From Mushroom Hot Chocolate to Lion’s Mane Pancakes to Mushroom Sauerkraut, there’s something for everyone to enjoy while simultaneously benefiting their health.
— Logan Isaman is the Community Assessment Coordinator at Lawrence Public Library.
Being a reader almost inevitably means forging relationships (at least in our own minds) with favorite authors. Once upon a time, as a nine-year-old hardcore "Little House on the Prairie" fan, I was devastated when at last it dawned on me that I would never, ever meet Laura Ingalls Wilder — I felt so deeply connected to her. The advent of author blogs has only increased the likelihood that a sense of kinship will bloom in a reader.
And so it is with my (in my heart) BFF, the cookbook author and food blogger, Jenny Rosenstrach. Back in my "Little House on the Prairie" days, I had zero interest in learning to cook — like Laura, I was way more interested in climbing trees and galloping across the plains on a fleet-footed pony than in giving Ma a hand in the kitchen (sorry, Mom!). Imagine my shock and horror when, as a college student out on my own, I came to the realization that I would need to procure and prepare food for myself pretty much every day for the rest of my life.
I limped along with my meager cooking skills, eating pasta and microwaved baked potatoes for a long time. And then I got married, and we had children — children who also need to be fed at regular intervals (and sometimes are incredibly picky eaters). Cue the dreaded question: What are we having for dinner tonight?
Enter Jenny. Her first book, "Dinner: A Love Story," was the first cookbook I ever read cover-to-cover — I even read the acknowledgements at the end. "Dinner: A Love Story" follows the early years of Jenny’s marriage and explores how the arrival in quick succession of two daughters (one, very picky!) upended and evolved their family’s approach to dinnertime. Rather than being arranged by ingredient or season or type of dish (entree, side, dessert), Jenny’s cookbook is a chronological memoir of a young family, punctuated by recipes, chronicling how the rhythm of their home life changes as the children grow.
Jenny’s companionable prose allows you to bask in the obvious affection at the heart of her family, while also embracing the less-than-camera-ready moments that make up so much of life with young children (so much of life, period, really). Being human can be hard, and I’ve often felt that a great book is one that makes you feel less alone. Who knew a cookbook, of all things — read at the right moment — could resonate so profoundly with a reader? Plus, the recipes are down-to-earth and within reach for folks who might a.) not be very comfortable in the kitchen, b.) live on a budget, and/or c.) need help coaxing a child away from a diet made up primarily of foods in the white-light tan-yellow color palette. My kids now regularly beg for homemade pizza night, thanks to in large part to Jenny’s pizza sauce recipe.
Jenny’s second book, "Dinner: The Playbook," and her third, "How to Celebrate Everything," also do a lot of heavy lifting when meal planning time comes around in my household. And her blog (also titled Dinner: A Love Story) continues to nourish the relationship that began, for me, with her first book. Odds aren’t great that I’ll ever meet Jenny Rosenstrach for real, but she’s been a welcome guest at my dinner table many times.
— Melissa Fisher-Isaacs is the information services coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.
Like many people, I love a good romantic comedy. I’m always in the mood for a meet-cute, a tale-of-friends-to-lovers, a happily-ever-after (or at least for now). Luckily, as a reader of romance, I usually have a stack of rom-coms sitting on my bedside table.
The only downside to my rom-com reading habit is that I would also like to watch many of these stories, and unfortunately, Hollywood no longer seems particularly interested in making these kinds of movies. Recently, though, fellow Book Squad member Kimberly sent me the trailer for "Love, Simon," an adaptation of Becky Albertalli’s YA romantic comedy "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda." I cried watching the trailer, and I cried listening to the audiobook (it’s a comedy, I swear!), and then I almost cried again when I realized the movie won’t be released until March.
With nearly six weeks of time to kill before I can cry while actually watching "Love, Simon" (different trailer, equally worth watching), I decided to round up a few other rom-com reads I think would make amazing big-screen love stories.
The Book: Jasmine Guillory’s "The Wedding Date," an extremely charming new release about Alexa and Drew, who meet when she agrees to be his on-the-fly date to his ex-girlfriend’s wedding ... and then the pair can’t seem to shake each other, despite living at opposite ends of California and not being interested in a long-term commitment.
Why It Would Make a Good Movie: It’s about grown-ups who really like each other trying to fit into each other’s lives while also maintaining their own separate existences, and frankly I think we need more romances like that in the world. Also, it actually made me laugh out loud multiple times when I was reading it — always a promising sign for a potential romantic comedy.
My Fancast: In the book, Alexa is described as being a short, curvy African-American woman, while Drew is a tall, lean white guy, and I read both as being somewhere between late-20s and mid-30s. What about Danielle Brooks for Alexa and Matthew Goode for Drew? I would watch them fall in love and eat donuts (an extremely important recurring plot point) every single day and twice a day on Sundays.
The Book: Mackenzi Lee’s "The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue," an ever-so-slightly magical queer historical YA novel about upper-class teenager Monty, his biracial best friend (and secret beloved) Percy and his younger sister Felicity fleeing murderous noblemen across 18th-century Europe ... all while Monty tries to hide his feelings from Percy, who he’s convinced doesn’t love him back.
Why It Would Make a Good Movie: Didn’t you read my description of the plot? It’s about queer teenagers fleeing murderous noblemen across 18th-century Europe, with magic. Why am I not watching this movie right now?
My Fancast: Look, I don’t know if the cover model can act, but if he can, that’s our Monty — problem solved. If he can’t, Tom Glynn-Carney has the accent and the cheekbones to pull off the role, and Justice Smith has Percy’s sweet, shy smile down pat. I think Millie Bobby Brown could nail Felicity’s serious demeanor, and she actually looks like she could be Tom Glynn-Carney’s sister (I hate when actors playing siblings would never pass for related).
The Book: Katie Heaney and Arianna Rebolini’s "Public Relations," a completely wonderful workplace romance about fading pop star Archie Fox and his public relations representative, Rose Reed, who sets out to revitalize Archie’s career by engineering a relationship for him with up-and-coming hipster musician Raya ... which actually works great, career-wise, except that Rose falls for Archie herself.
Why It Would Make a Good Movie: This book did a great job of capturing how people in their mid-20s with careers actually talk to one another, and what they talk about; it sounded like conversations I’ve had with my friends. Plus, you get the on-screen contrast of Archie’s seemingly glamorous life with all the labor required to achieve it — very "Devil Wears Prada" — with an extra helping of “but when are they going to kiss?!”
My Fancast: This was the easiest movie to cast by far. I think Katie Stevens of "The Bold Type" would make an awesome Rose, and I was already imagining Zoe Kravitz as Raya when I was reading the book. As for Archie — well. The authors flatly acknowledge he’s heavily based on Harry Styles, and try as I might, I couldn’t think of anyone else who could be the Archie that lives on the page and in my brain. And he’s known to be a fan of rom-coms. Someone get him this script, stat!
I can pretty much guarantee that each of these movies would be a money-maker because I would personally see each of them no fewer than eleven bajillion times.
What about you? What romantic comedies do you wish you could see on the big screen, and who would you cast in them?
- Meredith Wiggins is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Since last November’s Luaka Bop spotlight, I’ve disgracefully neglected my world music search.
Hoping to make up for lost time, I asked my coworkers to share some of their favorite albums from our world music collection. Here are their responses:
Dom La Nena’s "Ela" is a hauntingly beautiful debut that combines elements of classical string music with subtle samba beats to create a unique form of cello pop. Her melancholy vocals, sung in Portuguese and occasionally Spanish, reflect emotional sincerity and depth that aren’t always so easily conveyed by such young artists. Admittedly, nearly all of the lyrical meaning is lost on me, as I don’t speak either language, but that doesn’t impede my appreciation of her gentle, flowing vocal delivery. And while each of these songs could stand as solo pieces, I can’t help but listen to the title track “Ela” on repeat. The raised heartbeat rhythm, gradual introduction of strings accompanying Dom’s cello, and her breathy vocal delivery leave me gasping for air by the song’s end.
— Kevin from Collection Development
Julieta Venegas, Mexican singer-songwriter, comes for your heartstrings in her fifth album, "Otra Cosa," with a delicate balance of home, memory, rejections and love. It’s a mishmash of all that is forlorn and sweet about the intimacies that we carry with us long after they have ended. A worthwhile listen while you’re on your way back to yourself after heartbreak, even when self-initiated. “Ya Conoceran” is one of my favorite songs, full of lyrical aches and triumphs.
— Vanessa from Community Development & Partnerships
Do you realize how impossible it is to pick just one world music artist? Stymied, I choose a true master, a man who was active in the global music scene for over sixty years. A giant in his native land, his reach ranged from classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin to Philip Glass, from The Beatles to The Byrds, from the stage at Woodstock to the Oval Office. He could be heard on Hollywood soundtracks and just up the road at Lawrence’s Lied Center.
Sitar master Ravi Shankar, of course. Listen and be transported.
— Jake from Information Services
Funky horns and infectious guitar lines abound: Fela Kuti's "Zombie" is a fabulously orchestrated example of Afrobeat from the pioneer himself. Threaded between the vibrant instrumental sections are Kuti's Nigerian Pidgin English lyrics, which build and eventually culminate into catchy melodic chants. It is worth noting the political fervor behind this record, with Kuti's lyrics being particularly critical of the Nigerian government and military (so much so that he saw an unfortunate reaction from the government). Music that causes political reaction, to me, is inherently cool. It is powerful. Funky, empowering and endlessly groovy, "Zombie" is a must-listen for funk music lovers new and old.
— Joel from Tech Services
The distinctive sound of Paul Simon’s 1986 album "Graceland" owed much to the backing vocals by South African male choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Three decades later, the group’s newest album for children, "Songs of Peace and Love for Kids and Parents around the World," was nominated for a Grammy. The album contains songs about racial and gender harmony, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, even a Zulu version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” That the group makes interesting a song most American kids have heard hundreds of times is a testament to the transformative power of exposure to a culture different from one’s own via music. Plus, it’s just plain fun to learn the Zulu words for the sounds that dogs, cows, goats and pigs make.
— Dan from Collection Development
Do you have any favorite world music albums? Is the library missing any seminal works? What else should I be checking out?
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, apart from "Who is William Onyeabor?," one of my very favorite albums in our world music collection is French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux’s "Vengo." Its unapologetic feminism and confident progressivism go hand in hand with its stylistic diversity. Triumphant trumpets and hardcore pan flutes (who knew?) abound, but they pale in comparison to Tijoux’s fantastic multifaceted delivery, which manages to be simultaneously ferocious, optimistic and a dozen other emotions all at once.
— Ian Stepp is an information services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Laura Moriarty’s writing since I first heard her talk about "The Center of Everything" in the tiny cafe of the now defunct Borders bookstore in 2004. Her fully fleshed characters and well-developed plots often have me reading into the wee hours of the morning. Her latest book, "American Heart," is no different.
Labeled as a young adult dystopian novel, the story is so grounded in realism that it feels like many of her other books which revolve around characters contending with the choice to stand by the social and legal expectations of their worlds or strike out on paths they feel are right and humane. In this vision of the United States, Muslim-Americans must submit themselves to registries and are forced into detainment camp.
The main character of "American Heart," Sarah-Mary, is a Midwestern teenager waiting to escape the confines of her all-too-small world. Her mother is a footnote in the lives of Sarah-Mary and her brother Caleb, always chasing the golden ticket of romance and wealth through men she meets on the internet. The two children live with their authoritarian aunt, who has enrolled them in a private Baptist school where no real learning takes place, and Sarah-Mary suffers through the 24/7 monitoring by her new guardian.
On one bitterly cold winter evening, Sarah-Mary finds herself searching for a brother she loves, but whom she has hurt. For the love of her brother, she then promises to help Sadaf, a fugitive Muslim woman, to safety, and because Sarah-Mary is stubborn and headstrong, safety doesn’t mean across state lines, it means all the way to Canada.
The book is told entirely from the point of view of Sarah-Mary, apropos of the author’s own identity as a white woman. With Caleb as her only real family, she feels she must fulfill her promise, not only out of love, but also to prove she is not like her mother. Her stubbornness in all things, whether it’s retrieving Sadaf’s $300 when she gets ripped off by a sketchy fake ID artist, the glacial evolution of her perceptions of Muslims or even her perseverance to see Sadaf all the way to Canada, is not unlike many teenagers I know, and not a departure from many of the protagonists in YA fiction.
We do see Sarah-Mary’s slow evolution towards empathy and acceptance through the novel, which happens at an expected pace, given the filtered news and blatant propaganda that she has been exposed to through her life (the internet was banned at her aunt’s house, not to mention social media, where unsavory ideas could easily plant themselves in a young, impressionable mind).
Though Sadaf needs someone to book hotel rooms and cover for her in order to get to the northern border, she remains a rock throughout the novel, never swallowing Sarah-Mary’s racist comments and questions. Their discussions range from family to politics to Jeopardy, and Sarah-Mary eventually finds a deep respect for a woman who worked hard to earn a doctorate in electrical engineering and who moved to a new country and culture for increased social and economic opportunities.
Sadaf’s own heartbreak and betrayal leave her tight-lipped and terse through the beginnings of the book, but as the promise of freedom and safety open up the closer the pair moves north, so does Sadaf, speaking of her friends, her family, and especially the son she feels she abandoned. Any perspective shifting from Sarah-Mary to Sadaf (which could be a compelling storytelling element) could easily wander into a cultural appropriation minefield, and the author avoided this through the use of a consistent first-person voice from Sarah-Mary’s perspective.
Ultimately, this is a story of how someone grapples with the endgame of the racism they were born and raised into. Moriarty’s exemplary pacing and plotting make "American Heart" a satisfying read.
If you would like to hear Moriarty speak about "American Heart," please join us on Thursday, February 8th at 7:00 PM in the Lawrence Public Library auditorium. The Raven Book Store will sell copies of "American Heart" and a signing will follow the presentation.
— Kristin Soper is the events coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.
One month into 2018 and I find myself in a very erratic reading mode, so much so that I couldn't settle on trying to feature one book in depth, so I thought I’d take you, dear reader, on a stroll through some books I’m really enjoying — but haven’t finished yet!
I challenged myself to dive into the new biography of Ulysses S. Grant by Ron Chernow. Why? I guess I don’t really know a lot about Grant, so why not read 1,100 pages about him? This book is pretty easy to read in fragments given its traditional, chronological biography style.
I’m a bit over a third of the way in, and Grant has just become lieutenant general and commander of all Union armies. Chernow does a great job challenging a lot of misunderstandings about who Grant really was. Compelling reading!
Alongside the Grant biography, I have been reading "They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us," a collection of essays by Hanif Abdurraqib. The essays are wide ranging, concentrating mostly on his experience growing up black among lots of white emo and punk rock kids. I find his explorations of race most appealing, but there is also some really great music writing. I'm definitely excited about his visit to Lawrence on February 27. Thank you, KU Commons and Raven Book Store!
In addition, I have been reading essays from two soon-to-be-published books by Sloane Crosley ("Look Alive Out There") and Zadie Smith ("Feel Free"). Both books are shaping up to be pretty fantastic collections and come out in early April. Fun fact: Sloane Crosley will be here at the Lawrence Public Library on April 14 on her spring book tour.
Lastly, I decided to go back and read another in the fantastic series of Dave Brandstetter mysteries written by Joseph Hansen. I stumbled across a mass market copy of one of the books in this series in a bookstore in Vancouver and was intrigued. Little did I know that I had discovered a ground-breaking series of crime novels featuring Dave Brandstetter. He was one of the first openly gay protagonists in hard-boiled crime fiction. Every book is this series is a quick, gripping read. Pick one in the series at random and have fun.
- Brad Allen is the Executive Director of Lawrence Public Library.
Thanks to the discovery of a book called “Deep,” while it was below zero here in Kansas, I was immersed below sea level in a warm and magical aquatic world where the rules of life are tweaked and a different language is spoken. Hundreds of feet down and more, they speak of chemosynthetic life in the Garden of Eden. Static apnea. Xenophyophores.
In "Deep," author James Nestor describes diving with sperm whales — without scuba gear — eye to eye for as long as he could hold his breath. Which, in his case, is a long time. The whales (“the biggest predators on earth,” he can’t resist saying) didn’t mind. I found the whole thing ineffably appealing.
The more Nestor described it, the more interesting it got. The massive whales charged the divers, then pulled up short. Nestor heard — and felt — a constant clicking as the whales used echolocation bursts to check him out, increasing in intensity from gas stove sparker to jackhammer on pavement. I later found a similar story in Julia Whitty’s book “Deep Blue Home.”
I was once “clicked” by dolphins, though I didn’t realize it until later when my family excitedly told me they saw them swimming around me. I can hardly imagine swimming in the deep ocean as whales approach — and feeling the clicks of the loudest animal in the world reverberate through me.
The communications of sperm whales are but a piece of “Deep,” expertly embedded in a longer story of, as the subtitle says, “freediving, renegade science, and what the ocean tells us about ourselves.” The book starts with freediving, which I knew nothing about and now find nearly as interesting as talking whales.
As you might guess, freediving is diving without mechanical assistance. I like the idea because divers have learned tricks to overcome inner-ear pressure and extend one’s breath-holding abilities. Also, feeling gravity overcoming buoyancy at the “doorway to the deep,” around 40 feet down, must be pretty cool. Not without serious risks, freediving is now a global competitive sport.
We have learned some amazing things about the human body from freediving. One interesting phenomenon is the mammalian dive reflex, which changes our physiology and allows us to withstand the literal pressures of diving. Blood moves from the extremities to the core. The heart rate drops. The lungs shrink. But the really intriguing lessons, I think, are elsewhere. Freediving offers a chance to experience the world in an entirely new way.
Many whales tend to shy away from submersible vehicles and even the noises of scuba gear. As more is learned about their echolocation abilities, it’s easy to see why. Thanks to modern technology, the rapid-fire streams of sperm whale clicks have been broken down to discrete millisecond clicks, and they’re not random. They can be repeated down to the micro-click, directed at particular individuals, and even called back by other whales. Verbatim, if that’s the right word, over 1500 clicks per second.
Nestor profiles an amateur scientist who’s recording and analyzing these cetacean communications, a sailor who had a close encounter with a pod of whales that changed his life. After finding himself unexpectedly surrounded by curious and clicking sperm whales, Fabrice Schnoller set up a nonprofit research organization called DareWin to study whale and dolphin communication. Nestor more recently has followed suit, with an organization called CETI — the Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative.
“Deep” goes on to include more underwater surprises, from coral synchronously spawning under a full moon (how do they know?), to the weird organisms that inhabit the deepest trenches, to the very origins of life — which was perhaps not in tide pools, but near thermal vents at the bottom of the sea.
All in all, this was one of the most engrossing books I’ve read lately. The next time you’re holed up by the Kansas winters, expand your horizons down. Go “Deep.”
— Jake Vail is an information services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.
Kansas Day is almost here, and I’ve got an inspiring way to celebrate! A new book pays tribute to the Kansans who are advocating for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.
In "No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas," author C.J. Janovy shares the recent compelling stories of the leaders committed to making Kansas a safer place with legal protections from bigotry. Everyone who supports social justice will learn powerful models for continued advocacy.
Janovy is a veteran journalist, including ten years working for "The Pitch," and is now the arts reporter at KCUR; this is her first book. I asked her why she decided to focus on Kansas rather than the whole region.
Focusing on Kansas rather than the whole region was…where I knew there was a specific story… In 2013, when the US Supreme Court came out with its Windsor and Perry decisions, creating such an uneven legal landscape around the country [Kansas and many other states still banned gay marriage], Kansas was an especially interesting place to think about LGBT equality/advocacy/politics because of Westboro, which is known internationally as a place in Kansas (except when other writers mistakenly refer to it as in Florida, which I’ve seen). Finally, Kansas has a reputation. I knew an exploration of LGBT activism in Kansas would refute some of the stereotype, which made it fun and fertile territory to write in and about.
Living in the middle of the country often means being neglected by national journalists who emphasize faraway metropolises of more familiar activism in places like New York and California. Lawrencians have a reputation for making our town a liberal bubble inside a politically conservative state; we enacted protections from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations before most Kansas cities.
The examples in "No Place Like Home" champion Kansas pride and personalities from rural locales like Trego County and the tiny town of Meade to Manhattan, Salina, Hutchinson, Topeka, Lawrence, Wichita and everywhere citizens are taking personal risks to ensure this middle ground is welcoming to a wider rainbow-range of people.
Janovy vividly describes a 2014 gay pride rally in Wichita. This empowering moment punctuated ten days of pride events. The electrifying energy of the event she describes is depicted in this photo, provided by the author. At the podium is transgender heroine Stephanie Mott.
Nine years after the marriage amendment defeat, on a warm, sunny Sunday, a dozen teenagers wearing T-shirts and cutoffs stood in a formation rising up the stone steps of Wichita’s old Sedgwick County Courthouse, a relic of prairie Renaissance architecture circa 1888… On the sidewalk in front of them, and spread out under shady trees, several hundred people had gathered for the annual gay pride rally.
Everyone knew Mott, but no one in the crowd had ever seen the person to whom she passed the microphone. “Hi, my name is Sandra Stenzel. I drove four hours today from western Kansas to be here." Over the last few months, Stenzel had begun a creaky reemergence from her post-marriage-amendment decade of depression and isolation in Trego County, and people clapped when she told them how far she had driven to be with them. “Because it’s important that we have community,” she said, holding the microphone but not speechifying, just talking, as if these people were sitting at the kitchen table of her farmhouse on Downer Creek. “Don’t forget the people you left behind,” she told them. “There are so many of us here today who grew up in a small town, grew up in a rural area, and we blew that pop stand and never looked back.”
This earned cheers from people who had done exactly that. “But there’s work for us to do in the rural areas. If nothing else, it’s just to reach back because there’s some kid like you out there. There’s some single farm woman out there who needs company. And there’s someone who’s willing to drive four hours just to be with other gay people. Just to not be alone.” Stenzel reminded everyone that they were part of a long tradition and that the struggle didn’t begin with the marriage amendment. “The biggest problem we had keeping it off the ballot was we couldn’t find other gay people to work against it. We didn’t know how to reach each other. I look out here today, ten years later”—finally she yelled: “You are magnificent!”
Every page of "No Place Like Home" is filled with heartfelt courage and personal stories; there is no place like LGBT Kansas. Kansans everywhere are working to ensure that our state is friendly for us all — they’re digging in their heels just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz to declare “there’s no place like home.”
Meet Janovy and several of the heroines and heroes featured in her book at the library on Monday, January 29 — an apropos celebration for Kansas Day.
More information on the event can be found here.
— Shirley Braunlich is a readers’ services assistant at the Lawrence Public Library.