Recommended: “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann

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(Recommended by Phil Johnson, MBA/MSIS 2008)

Here is a recommendation for you from a recent alumnus.

Title:  “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus”
Author:  Mann, Charles C.
Publisher:  Vintage
ISBN:  1-4000-3205-9

Don’t be daunted by the off-putting title.  Although it sounds like a heady post-modern celebration of Columbus bashing, it is anything but (well, there may be a little Columbus bashing).  Mann’s writing style can immediately lump this tome into the “leisure reading” category due to his engaging prose. Mann does for pre-Columbian history what Yasunari Kawabata did for the game of go — he makes it interesting and, at times, almost exciting.  Even if the subject matter bores you to tears, the writing will safely ferry you along through the white water of insomnia-curing anthropological theories and arguments.

The main premise of the book is that the pre-Columbian populations of the Americas were not the ineffectual and innocuous civilizations that our schoolbooks made them out to be.  They actually had a great effect on the American landscape ranging from the management of the so-called wilderness (both North American and Amazonian) to huge civil engineering projects around the Missouri/Illinois/Mississippi region. The book explores a variety of civilizations along with first person accounts of archeological excavations and interviews with scientists and scholars (that sometimes even border on the deliciously catty).

The author breaks the book up into three sections.  Part one can be summarized to “everything you’ve been taught about the indigenous peoples of the Americas is wrong and I will tell you why.”  Part two:  “Holy crap!  There were gazillions of people living here long before Columbus!”  Part three:  “The indigenous peoples way back when were not as unsophisticated as you think they were — they were far more sophisticated than we are now, they just changed the landscape in very subtle ways that we never noticed before; and you heard it here first.”

So, with “1491″ it’s come for the writing, stay for the (sometimes irreverent) anthropology.  You will be entertained and, if you’re not careful, you’ll probably learn a thing or too.  Never before have I read a detailed account of a species’ extinction told with such milk-through-the-nose hilarity.

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Recommended: “American Wife” by Curtis Sittenfeld

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(Recommended by Kaitlin Sidorsky, Class of 2011)

As an avid reader and a lover of politics, Curtis Sittenfeld’s new book American Wife appealed to two different sides of my nature. Although a work of fiction, it lends a very humane quality to not only the life of the President, but his family members who are equally as involved in his administration.

American Wife tells the story of Alice Blackwell, current first Lady of the United States, a woman who is eerily similar to the current First Lady Laura Bush. Alice Blackwell’s Husband, Charlie, and Charlie’s parents are also based off of the Bush family with added twists to each character to make them unique. What made this such an enjoyable read was not only the immersion into Alice Blackwell’s psyche but the humane quality it gave to the people involved in an administration. It is often that people forget that those who are making decisions, or who are closely involved with those who make the decisions, are real people. They have feelings, unique life experiences, and perhaps even differing opinions. It shows that a First Lady or first child is not the same as the President himself or his views. Each family member has their own history and what the public perceives them as is not always who they truly are.

Curtis Sittenfeld brings up extremely important questions about family, politics, destiny, the choices we make and the ultimate paths our lives take. She allows us to not only become Alice Blackwell but to recognize ourselves in her in some way. The fact that the reader can understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences of Alice Blackwell is only made more interesting and amazing because she becomes the First Lady of the United States. What made this possible is that for the majority of the book we learn of Alice Blackwell’s life journey, how she became the person she is today.

Alice Blackwell’s life’s choices are extremely important in this novel and her constant questioning of them is central to the plot. In one of the most revealing parts of the book, Alice recounts an embarrassing moment when she walks in through a door of a bathroom in a country club and thinking the other one is for the toilets, finds that it is just another entrance/exit. Instead of using the other door for the toilets, she walks out as if meaning to do that all along so that she doesn’t have to embarrass herself. Later on in the book she looks back on this small episode in her life and relates it to her husband’s presidency by saying:

“I feel a growing suspicion that Charlie continues to fight this war for much the same reason I couldn’t bring myself to reenter the ladies room at the Maronne Country Club, and he even has my compassion, except for this- that night at the club, when I needed to urinate and hadn’t, the only one who suffered for my foolishness was me.”

This was an excellent book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys not only learning about the life of someone else but learning a little bit about themselves along the way.

Recommended: “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein

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(Recommendation written by Helen Senecal, Assistant Director of Transfer Admission )

I read your email yesterday about submissions for books to read for leisure!  I think this is a great idea and would love to make a recommendation.

I just finished reading “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein and would heartily recommend this book!  For those who have pets (particularly a dog) or have had pets in the past, this book is a humorous narrative of the human condition as seen through the eyes of a dog, Enzo.

Enzo is adopted as a puppy by a family and immediately understands that he is different from humans.  He passionately believes in reincarnation and that he will come back as a human.  As such, he is determined to learn how to be “human.”  This book is about the relationships between Enzo and Denny (the father), Eve (the mother), and Zoe (the child). Denny is an aspiring Formula One racer whose philosophy about life is much aligned with his view of racing… the best racers learn to control not only their car but themselves during the ultimate test of endurance, racing in the rain.  Enzo learns from Denny this “art” as he philosophically observes toward the end of his life as a dog, “I know this much about racing in the rain.  I know it is about balance. It is about anticipation and patience… but racing in the rain is also about mind!  It is about owning one’s own body.  About believing that one’s car is merely an extension of one’s body.  About believing that the track is an extension of the car, and the rain is an extension of the track, and the sky is an extension of the rain.  It is about believing that you are not you; you are everything; and everything is you.”  (pg. 314).  A thoroughly enjoyable read, full of humor, philosophy, and pure love.  Read it and tell me you won’t look at your pet and think, I wonder?