The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower

residenceIf you liked the movie “The Butler,” this book will probably fascinate you.  It is the story of the many people, including butlers, maids, and chefs, who’ve worked in the White House during the last fifty years.  Brower’s book, based on interviews with many of these employees and with members of the presidents’ families, shares these staffers’ observations of the Kennedys, Johnsons, Nixons, Reagans, Fords, Carters, Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas.

Discretion is such an important part of a White House staffer’s job that Kennedy’s philandering, well known to White House workers, remained a secret from the public for years after his death.  However, retired staff members feel freer to reminisce.  The book includes information about the Kennedy assassination, Lyndon Johnson’s incessant demands for a hotter, more forceful shower, Nixon’s resignation, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, staffers’ fleeing the White House on 9/11, fearing that it might be the terrorists’ next target, the Obamas dancing to Mary J. Blige’s songs on their first night in the White House, and many other significant, humorous, or heartwarming anecdotes.

One fact that surprised me is that staffers protect presidents from possible poisoning by destroying gifts of food.  When Gorbachev sent fine caviar for the president, a staff member refused to throw it away and took it home, declaring that he would gladly risk death to enjoy this special treat!

While all staff members have enjoyed a unique opportunity to see the intimate lives of presidential families, working in the White House sometimes leads to a close friendship with a president.  Especially, the elder President Bush and Barbara Bush treated the staff like members of their family.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar

In 2010 a mine in the desert region of Chile collapsed, trapping 33 miners for 39 long days.deep down dark  Why?  In order to make the mine profitable, its owners had neglected safety precautions.  Although the miners, at least to some extent, realized the risks, they chose to work there because the relatively high salaries made it possible for them to have middle-class lifestyles.

Tobar, who bases his story on extensive interviews, helps the reader to know the individual miners.  These were ordinary men, varying greatly in age and personality.  They did not think of themselves as heroes.  Often they worked together well as a team, but sometimes they argued among themselves or acted against the best interests of the group.  In their daily prayer meetings, they confessed to a variety of sins.  Yet somehow they found the strength to survive with almost no food, usually sharing the morsels fairly, enduring almost unbearable heat and humidity.  For seventeen days, they had no contact with the outside world and did not know if anyone would ever reach them.

The chapters alternate among the miners, their rescuers, and the miners’ loved ones – wives, mistresses, ex-wives, parents, siblings, and children.  These people camped outside the mine, pushing the rescuers not to give up and hoping against hope that the miners could return home alive.

When the rescuers made contact with the miners, the ordeal was far from over.  The rescue effort was long and difficult.  Even after the rescuers supplied food and met some of the miners’ needs, the men continued to suffer psychologically.  Then, amid the joy of return to their loved ones, they faced the totally new – and often disturbing – experience of being celebrities.

If you enjoy stories about ordinary people surviving against all odds, you’ll want to read Deep Down Dark.

Helen Snow, retired from Information Services

Lingo : Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren

Dorren discusses, with great humor, the plethora of languages spoken in Europe and their lingoidiosyncrasies.  All of the big guns are here (English, French, German, etc.) as well as a good batch of the obscure.  Have you ever heard of Sorbian?  How about Romansh?  The author talks about these, the distinctions between Indo-European and the much-smaller Finno-Urgic group of tongues, and the complexities of the modern Celtic languages (he takes a particularly hard stab at Welsh and its unique spellings.)

There are very few European languages, in fact, that are excluded.  Dorren even includes a chapter on Basque, a complete anomaly of a tongue in that it isn’t related to any other languages in Europe.

Lingo will go down much better with the readers who love languages for their own sake.  Some chapters require some sense of linguistics to grasp.  Others are just funny, and all are informative.  As the book is written in these brief chapters, Lingo is definitely a “read as you choose” type of experience.

Each chapter usually ends with a loan word that has made it into English from the discussed language, and another word that is unique to that language.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Mayflower : a story of courage, community, and war by Nathaniel Philbrick

mayflowerI expected this well-researched history to be worthy of my time, but rather boring.  Instead, I found the book so interesting that I read it like a novel!

The book goes far beyond the familiar story of the Pilgrims and Indians at the First Thanksgiving.  Did you know these interesting facts?

  • Many of the Mayflower’s passengers weren’t Pilgrims.  However, they were an important part of the community at Plymouth.
  • Before the arrival of the Mayflower, up to 90% of the local Indians had died from a plague brought by explorers.
  • The Englishmen got off to a bad start with the Indians by stealing some of their stored corn but the two groups later formed an alliance that worked well for years.
  • Early writers marveled at the height of the Indians and spoke highly of their intelligence but didn’t seem to notice their color.
  • The Indians didn’t dress like those in the pictures of the First Thanksgiving – in fact, they often wore no clothes at all!

Fifty years after the successful alliance between the Plymouth colony and the local Indian leaders, the story changed.  King Philip’s War broke out between the white men and Indians, “King” Philip being an Indian leader who considered himself the equal of King Charles II of England.  This war, which many of us never even heard of, ended in the deaths of almost 8% of the men of the Plymouth colony, making it much bloodier than the Civil War.  Southern New England lost 60 to 80% of its Indian population, including the Indians whom the English colonists shipped out of the country as slaves.  Sadly, the English colonists all too often considered all Indians as enemies, ignoring the fact that many Indians wanted to remain neutral.  Finally, the colonists recruited “friend Indians,” whose assistance was very important to their victory.

If you have any interest in early American history, read this book; you’ll be glad you did!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

in the heart of the seaIn the 19th century, almost everyone knew the story of the whaling ship Essex, just as most people today have heard of the Titanic.  The Essex left Nantucket for the Pacific Ocean in 1819.  When it was in the middle of that ocean, about as far from civilization as it was possible to be, a huge sperm whale attacked the ship.  To the crew, it seemed like a deliberate act, perhaps of revenge for their killing its fellow whales.  The gripping story of the ship’s destruction and the crew’s long voyage to civilization (almost 4,500 nautical miles of rowing in whaleboats outfitted with sails) is a real-life thriller that you won’t forget!

The tale served as an inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick.  When I read Melville’s novel during my college years, his descriptions of life on a whaling ship fascinated me, and Philbrick’s book also provides a vivid picture of the world of whaling.

Philbrick bases his story on extensive research, including his study of the memoirs by the ship’s first mate and its fourteen-year-old cabin boy.  The movie version, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, is now in theaters.

Caution: at times, I found it hard to read about the great suffering of the crew.  You may want to skim some of the more dreadful parts of the book!

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Road to Character by David Brooks

road to characterDavid Brooks is a New York Times columnist and a best-selling author.  This book contains biographical sketches of ten famous people:  Frances Perkins, a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet; President Dwight Eisenhower; St. Augustine; civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph; General George Marshall; English novelist George Eliot; English author Samuel Johnson; French author Michel de Montaigne, and Dorothy Day, a champion of the poor.  The focus of each sketch is the individual’s lifelong struggle to overcome weaknesses and develop character.

The book emphasizes inward growth, not improvement in the ability to achieve wealth, power, and status.  Brooks believes that humility is necessary for a person to grow in character and that this is often difficult in our era of the “big me,” with its emphasis on self-aggrandizement.  This makes sense to me; if a person considers himself already extraordinary, he probably will not be sufficiently aware of his weaknesses to carry out the moral struggles important for character development.

Brooks shares some interesting statistics on contrasts between the past and our present time.  On a narcissism test, with statements such as “I like to be the center of attention,” “I am extraordinary,” “I like to look at my body,” and “Somebody should write a biography of me,” the median score has risen 30 percent in the past twenty years.  In a 1950 Gallop poll, 12 percent of high school seniors thought that they were very important people; in 2005, this figure was 80 percent.  Few people ranked fame as an important life goal in 1976, but in 2007, 51 percent of young people chose becoming famous as a top personal goal.

If you aren’t interested in reading the entire book, you might want to read the sketches of the individuals who intrigue you.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Midnight in Siberia by David Greene

midnightThe author of this book, a former Moscow bureau chief for NPR, is now co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition.  His description of his trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway is very readable and interesting.  He focuses, not on the scenery and architecture, but on the lives and thoughts of the Russians whom he interviews.  If you’re interested in modern Russian society and in what Russians think about Stalin, Putin, and democracy, or in their hopes for the future, you’ll find Greene’s narrative thought-provoking.

Greene writes about his stay in Moscow, about the experience of traveling on a Russian train, and about places where he stopped along the way, including scenic Lake Baikal and a Russian bathhouse.  He interviews Russians young and old, male and female, from a variety of backgrounds, including activists, musicians, a professor, and business people.

One interesting quotation from an interview is that tragedy is “the way the soul of a Russian person is built.”  Other Russians in Midnight in Siberia express similar stoic views.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)