Book Review Tuesday

Empire of Shadows: the Epic Story of Yellowstone by George Black

The title of this book is slightly misleading. I expected a history of Yellowstone Park that included its discovery by Europeans; the establishment of the National Park; the building of its famous hotel, the Old Faithful Inn; the advertisement of the park to would-be visitors; and the scientific studies done on its geysers, hot springs, and wildlife populations. Of these topics, Black only discusses the discovery of the park and (slightly, at the end) the establishment of the National Park. In fact, the book does not even make it to the 20th century, ending instead with the death of Yellowstone explorer Captain Gustavus C. Doane in 1892. Black’s focus is not so much on Yellowstone Park itself, but on the events and expeditions that led to the creation of the park.

The book begins with the Lewis and Clark expedition, telling how tantalizingly close the Corps of Discovery came to “Wonderland” on their way to and from the Pacific. Black describes in detail the Native American tribes of the area – Piegan, Nez Perce, Crow, Blackfeet and others -  and spends many chapters telling of the relations between these tribes and  the white trappers, miners, and eventually, pioneers who moved into their territory in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It is, in many ways, a sad story filled with misunderstandings, murders and massacres, with both whites and natives seemingly unable to coexist with the other.

As part of this saga of interracial relations, Black introduces the settlers and soldiers who would form the first major exploration party in 1870. He describes how these principal players made their way to Montana, and what happened during their expedition in 1870. It is fascinating to read the account of this expedition, although a larger map of the area would have made the narrative more clear.

After describing the 1870 expedition, Black sums up the creation of the National Park, and comes to the conclusion that we will never really know who came up with the idea; there are too many competing claims with the same amount of evidence (which is to say, not much). He then tells the story of some of the first tourists, and of the last battle between the U.S. Army and the Nez Perce, part of which took place within the current boundaries of the Park. Finally, Black gives a brief epilogue, tying up the lives of the principal players of the 1870 expedition.

This is an interesting book, filled with fascinating characters from history. While it can sometimes be difficult to keep them all straight, Black does a good job of describing their importance to the creation of the very first National Park. A more detailed map and some more photographs and illustrations would have made the book even better, but overall, this is a solid history of one particularly recognizable corner of the American West.

The library call number for this book is F722.B53 2012

-Adrienne Meier, Librarian for the Social Sciences/University Archivist

Book Review Tuesday

Winner of an Alex Award for its cross-generational appeal, Rolland Merullo’s The Talk-Funny Girl is a book that embraces the margins.

The novel follows the story of a girl in an isolated mountain community who is even further isolated by her family’s cult affiliation and their unique dialect. Marjorie Richards endures profound physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her parents—punishments ordained by the religious cult in which her family is entangled. Shamed and pained through “boying,” “dousing,” “hungering,” and “facing,” Majie receives little reprieve at school, where her speech patterns elicit teasing from her classmates. Her well-being is further hampered by the community’s growing economic strain and increasing crime.

Majie’s life path veers, however, when in seeking employment outside the home, she encounters a newcomer to her town who offers her more than a job. He offers her friendship and a literal and figurative sanctuary amid her troubled life.

Bringing two victims of religious abuse together—Majie and Sands, a young man who himself was molested by a church leader as a child—Merullo sets them to constructing a stone cathedral in their community. Majie is initially guarded in her interactions with her enigmatic employer, but she slowly grows to trust him. Rebuilding on grounds where a previous church burned down, these two embark on a restorative journey, finding in architectural spaces and artistic exertion a renewal of their spirits and their faith in humanity and God.

This novel minimizes neither despair nor hope, depicting suffering as palpable and nearly unmitigated, but containing a redemptive element and the possibility of peace. Unflinching in its portrayal of the grittiness of life and the abuse that occurs under the guise of religion, it nevertheless embraces the spiritual and refuses to dismiss religion entirely. As a reader, I find the space that author Rolland Merullo carves with his words refreshing; the directive toward architecture and the arts, evocative and inspiring.

This book is located in the library with the call number JUV PS3563.E748 T35 2011.

-Kari Husby, Access Services Technician


Book Review Tuesday

The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist takes you on a long but satisfying quest to discover a radically new way to see ourselves and Western Civilization. It really is two books in one. The first explains in detail how the asymmetrical aspects of our two cerebral hemispheres work in decidedly different ways to determine how we perceive the world around us. For example, McGilchrist shows that the right hemisphere is better at processing new, unique perceptions, and in so doing, seeing the whole rather than an object’s various parts. The right also focuses on the personal instead of the impersonal.

The left side of the cortex, however, is good at creating abstractions from these initial right-sided perceptions in order to better categorize reality so we can act upon it. Both sides need to work in concert to engender a balanced approach to the world. When the brain’s functions are not in balance, particularly when the left-side’s perceptions dominate, we see the world askew.

To demonstrate how this can occur, the author uses the second section of the book to review several historical periods, showing how these two brain strategies are reflected in many aspects of Western culture such as music, art, literature, philosophy, science, and technology. This section concludes with a stinging critique of our modern and post-modern worlds. For McGilchrist, the ways the cerebral hemispheres cooperate, or not, determine how well balanced we act out our perceptions of reality.

This is not an easy read, but well worth the effort. The SPU Library’s call number for this tome is QP 385.5 .M36 2010.

-by Gary Fick, Librarian for the Sciences and Psychology

Book Review Tuesday

China’s First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors by Frances Wood

China has 3,000+ years of history, and it makes sense that that long history would have its fair share of interesting characters. One of these, Qin Shi Huangdi, was the first emperor of what would come to be known in the Western world as China. He unified the warring provinces of China and kept them together by means of a centralized bureaucracy and a standardized and codified law system rather than the previous feudal system. Qin Shi Huangdi also standardized all weights and measures used in China, and it was during his reign that the Chinese system of written characters became used throughout the land. Today’s Chinese characters are written differently, but are direct descendants of those used during Huangdi’s reign.

Despite these interesting achievements, Qin Shi Huangdi is perhaps best known for causing the creation of two world wonders: the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army. Huangdi’s part in the Great Wall may be doubted, as there is no direct evidence that the parts in existence today were built during his time. This may be because they have been covered over by recent construction, or that the stones have been re-used, which has been known to occur in China. Other walls around the country have been found that date to Huangdi’s reign.

There is no question, however, about the origin of the Terracotta Army, a much more recent archaeological find. Three different sets of life-sized men, all unique, completely outfitted for battle and made entirely of ceramics (except for their weapons, which were crafted the same way actual weapons used by the Chinese army were made) surround Huangdi’s magnificent tomb. Scholars speculate that there would have been a fourth set of soldiers, except Huangdi died before that set could be completed. The description of the Terracotta Army in the book is fascinating, although I wished for some pictures!

For an excellent and readable introduction to this fascinating (and mysterious – we really don’t know much about him) ruler, China’s First Emperor is an excellent choice.

This book can be found at the library with the call number DS747.9.Q254 W66 2008.

-Adrienne Meier, Librarian for Social Sciences and University Archivist