Ayers, Bill and Bernarding Dohrn. Race Course: Against White Supremacy. Third World Press, 2009.
While this is a short history of racial oppression in America, the authors use a lot of their personal experience in the book, so I got to know a little of their histories as well. The authors got politicized working against red-lining in Chicago and community organizing in black neighborhoods to improve city services. They quote Bertolt Brecht:
“In dark times, will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.”
I learned from their book that John Brown (one of my father’s heroes) had been a conductor on the Underground Railroad in upstate New York—on the last run to the Canadian border and freedom—before he went to Kansas to try to keep it a free state. So slavery had a personal face to John Brown, and undoubtedly personal stories as well. 

Boyle, Kevin. Arc of Justice: A saga of race, civil rights, and murder in the Jazz Age. H.Holt, 2004.
This non-fiction book reads, as they say, like a novel. But this one really does. In 1925, an African-American doctor purchased a house in a white neighborhood. His African-American wife had grown up in a mixed neighborhood in Detroit, but times were changing there; the African-American population was growing and the Ku Klux Klan was holding marches and rallies and running a member for mayor. A mob formed when Dr. Sweet and his wife moved in, a man was shot, the doctor, his wife, and the friends and relatives who tried to defend the couple from the mob were tried for murder. I don’t know if my father was still in Detroit when this trial took place, but he must at least have followed it in the newspapers, if only because one of his heroes, Clarence Darrow, was attorney for the defense.

Childs, Craig. The Secret Knowledge of Water: discovering the essence of the American desert, (Sasquatch Books, c2000). 

Judy Fjell handed this book to me a couple of years ago when I was staying at her place in Big Timber and looking for something to read. She hadn’t read it, but a friend had given it to her. It turned out to be just the kind of non-fiction I like, personal, well-written and full of little odd tidbits of knowledge. The author looks for water in the deserts of the southwestern states. Water holes, secret springs, rivers. Tidbit: he describes a river that’s underground by day and aboveground by night, complete with fish. Why? Because the trees along the banks suck up all the water by day as they photosynthesize, and let it flow by when there’s no sun and they’re not using it. The above link takes you to a review that quotes that passage. 

And here’s Malvina’s song about the desert, sung by Vanessa Marshall. backed by Nina Gerber.
  “The Desert” lyrics here, order Sun Sun Shine here.

Ellis, Deborah. The Breadwinner. Douglas & McIntyre, 2001.
A few years ago I read this children’s book about life in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s harsh restrictions on women’s lives. An eleven-year-old girl disguises herself as a boy so she can go out and earn food for her family after her father’s arrest. I was reminded of it when I read about a 75-year-old widow in Saudi Arabia being sentenced to 40 lashes when her dead husband’s 24-year-old nephew brought her some bread because he wasn’t related closely enough for her to “mingle” with.

Fouts, Roger. Next of Kin: What chimpanzees have taught me about who we are. William Morrow, 1997
When Fouts was a student he trained one of the signing   chimps and then when the experiment was over rescued some of the chimps from being used as lab animals for AIDS tests or other fates (chimps don’t die of AIDS, but they go crazy from the isolation). I recommend it if you are interested in language and communication and/or animals. It’s by turns fascinating, tragic and funny.

Lifton, Jane. Lost and Found: The adoption experience. Dial Press, c1979
A friend recommended I read this book, luckily right before my daughter Nancy Beth and I found each other, so I had some idea how to go about the meeting. We found each other through a registry when she was thirty-seven, in 1993. Before that, I had seen her only once, and never held her, before I gave her up for adoption. I was in college, and single, and not wanting to marry the father, a good guy but wrong for me, and mainly it was 1955, and nice girls didn’t become single mothers back then. Her adoptive parents named her Nancy, not knowing my name; we call her Nancy Beth when she’s around to avoid confusion. Lifton is adopted but also a writer by trade, so her book is more readable than some. Nancy Beth and I also both joined adoption support groups, which I highly recommend to anyone contemplating searching for birthparents or children. Info for Northern California support groups at PACER.
I wrote a performance piece about our reunion and have performed it both alone and with Nancy Beth, so I’m not going to write it all again in my blog. The performance piece included traditional stories touching on adoption issues, and the story list is on my web site. Nancy Beth is now my website designer, and a good friend. 

Mann, Charles C. 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Knopf, 2005
Last year I read an article in the Smithsonian magazine about why the Northeast Coast Indians made alliances with the colonists. The Indians had been looked at by historians as naive. Now we know the alliances were a necessity—the coastal tribes’ populations had been decimated by European diseases carried by coastal traders, while their inland enemies were still at full strength. I volunteer at a k-5 school in my neighborhood, and I was all excited about the information in the Smithsonian article because I was about to visit a fifth grade classroom to sing my song “1492” and looked forward to telling them the new story.
   “1492” sung by the Singing Rainbow. Sun, Sun Shine CD available from Sisters’ Choice.
Turns out that, in this classroom at least, the kids already knew about the effects of introduced diseases on native tribes in what is now the United States. A lot of textbooks haven’t caught up, though. 
1491 reiterates the story I read, and more. What I hadn’t realized was that the civil war of succession to the Inca, which the Spanish took advantage of, had been kicked off by the Inca’s death of a European disease—in this case smallpox—that the Indians had no immunity to. The death had happened before any Europeans entered Inca territory, as the disease was carried along Indian trade routes. (When I read this to my writing group, Kris said, “Like AIDS goes along the truck routes in Africa.”)
Another thing that hadn’t occurred to me was the effect of the massive die-off of native hunters on the environment. Those incredible flocks of passenger pigeons we read about? Never happened till a major predator all but disappeared. So the “wilderness” that explorers and colonists described was really an ecosystem thrown completely out of balance.
The book gives a host of these details, presented in a readable style. I’ve visited a lot of the ruins—in Peru, Mexico, the Southwest and the Midwest (mound cultures)—and those experiences probably added to my fascination with the book, but everybody in my book group liked it. 
This just in: after deforestation in the western Amazon, satellite photos showed patterns that were found to be remains of ancient structures built between 200 and 1300 CE.

Sachs, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
Two books on music and the brain came out recently. I thought Musicophilia was more readable than This Is Your Brain on Music: the science of a human obsession by musician-turned-producer-turned psychologist Daniel J. Levitin. However, Levitin’s book did report some neat research. Like, the author asked a bunch of people who said they couldn’t sing to sing their favorite pop song from a list he presented. The list included only songs that had a definitive recording everybody knew, none that had lots of covers. Many more times than chance would allow, they started the song at or very near the note the singer on the definitive recording started on. People, it seems, are more musical than they think they are, something I have long suspected.
Tidbit from Musicophilia: “Galileo famously exemplified this [the accurate memories humans have for tempo and rhythm] in his experiments timing the descent of objects as they rolled down inclined planes. Having no accurate watches or clocks to go by, he timed each trial by humming tunes to himself, and this allowed him to get results with an accuracy far beyond that of the timepieces of his era.” 

Sapon-Shevin, Mara. Widening the Circle: The Power of Inclusive Classrooms. Beacon Press, 2007.
When I was going to the University of California in the fifties, I was reading to blind students to supplement my small scholarship funds. Mostly I liked it, except the semester I had to read an education textbook aloud. Horrible meandering sentences full of jargon are bad enough to read silently, but to read aloud, sheer torture. I wish I’d been reading a book like this one. I know Mara from Children’s Music Network conferences, and the book sounds like her: impassioned, funny, and full of stories. What she is impassioned about here is including students of all abilities in a regular classroom, and teaching so that everybody learns what they can. It’s not only good for the physically- or learning-challenged students, it’s good for everybody. We all have different learning styles, so we can profit from a variety of teaching methods, and we all live in a world where we deal with people with different abilities. I prefer to learn by stories (no surprise there) so Widening the Circle suits me.

©2010 by Nancy Schimmel
Once a librarian always a librarian. I quit working full-time at the library in 1975, but I’m still making booklists.