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Jake Vail

There Can Only be One: A Biography of Everyone’s Favorite Device

“Today we’re introducing THREE revolutionary products… The first is a wide-screen iPod with touch control. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough internet communications device.”

It’s 2007, only ten years ago. On stage, Steve Jobs continues: “Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device.” And so the smartphone revolution started. Read More..

Reading Water, Hearing Trees

It’s Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! In honor of the man who’s mostly famous for sitting by a pond, here’s a look at a few recent books that might be of interest – whether or not you choose to go to the woods, build a cabin, and live deliberately. Read More..

Infinite, Unfathomable, Nonstop

Once upon a time, I stumbled across a quiz that asked, “Where You At?” Despite, or perhaps because of, its sloppy grammar, the question has stayed with me. My interest in natural and cultural history, and even my fascination with infrastructure, surely dates to this time, as evidenced by the real estate that writers like Henry Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, and Barry Lopez occupy on my bookshelves. Read More..

Stories of Our Life: The Great Derangement and Splinterlands

Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, a short science fiction piece which I reviewed a few months ago, keeps infiltrating itself into my reading. Oddly, it reverberates most when I read nonfiction.

Story of Your Life is so fascinating due to its subtle manipulation of time. You may know it as the basis of the movie Arrival, where, for one character, the future is part of the present. Nonfiction, though, often looks backwards (cultural history, natural history), using “time’s arrow” to explore the present.

But one of the most powerful non-fiction books I’ve read lately is Amitav Ghosh’s non-linear look into the future to question the present, called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The question Ghosh asks boils down to, “Why doesn’t the greatest issue of our time – climate change – show itself in more contemporary fiction?” Read More..

Two New Books Reveal The Hidden Life of Trees

When you visit the library, do you have something of an agenda and head for a particular section, or are you more of a browser, embracing serendipity and wandering from one area to another?

When you go for a walk, do you aim for a certain place, or do you saunter until something piques your curiosity?

A fuller appreciation of most anything surely benefits from both approaches, and the authors of two wonderful new books about trees prove this to be true. Read More..

The Best Books from the Worst Year

Let’s be honest, 2016 has been kind of a hot mess. Between so many celebrity deaths (David Bowie, Sharon Jones, Prince, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel… holy cow, SO MANY) and some, uh, general upheaval, most people are ready to write this one off as a loss.

But! As much as we’d like to say goodbye and good riddance to the year as a whole, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the very good things that came from 2016; this year has offered readers a wealth of fabulous new books. Debut authors and big-hitters alike have released incredible works in 2016, and the staff of LPL would like to share a few of our favorites. If you’re looking for great gifts for bibliophiles in your life, try one of these librarian-approved reads: Read More..

Story of Your Life Makes the Alien Accessible

Has this ever happened to you? You’re at work, thinking about, say, Fermat’s theories, and an idea is sparked for an intriguing short story. But then you realize you really know nothing about the foundation of such a story, and it would take a long time to learn it. Read More..

The Hour of Land Explores Shared Stories and Shared Space

They look pretty good for one hundred years old, don’t they? Happy Birthday to our National Parks! Well, this doesn’t date the ageless glory contained within the parks, but rather the National Park Service, established on August 25, 1916.

Even now, there are parks who have not had their stories fully told; how did I not know about a parade of massive earthen bears lining a section of the Mississippi River? Hundreds of these centuries-old earthworks quietly reside at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, one of the 412 units of the Park Service, and I have writer Terry Tempest Williams to thank for introducing me to them. Read More..

Heart of a Lion is A True Story of Fear, Cats, and Ecology

I bet when William Stolzenburg wrote his previous book, Where the Wild Things Were, he didn’t figure he would later find one of the wildest things in the Americas on a walkabout that stretched from the Black Hills of South Dakota, through Midwestern farms and cities, across major rivers, and all the way to the urban megalopolis of the East Coast. But Stolzenburg latched on to this true story of mystery and hope, and the result is a gripping and wise travelogue for our time. Read More..

Exploring Trace

Take a few moments to trace your history. Now trace the history of the place you call home. Following threads of memory, you’ll discern more than one version of your past. You probably have had more than one home, each of which has different versions of its own history. You have changed, places have changed, and as you dig you see that history itself is based on perceptions changing. “The past is remembered and retold by desire,” says author and geologist Lauret Savoy in her sweeping new book Trace , in which she endeavors to discover untold parts of her heritage and, intriguingly, tie them to the American land.

A palimpsest of a colorful decaying leaf over a page of faded text on the cover drew me in, and the blurb by author Terry Tempest Williams clinched it. Likewise, discernable through the gritty questing of Savoy’s story, one can see Williams’s Refuge, one of my favorite books, and even Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me– for within Savoy runs the blood of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans, and she examines racial oppression in the American landscape.

She begins as a child on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the geologist she would later become describes the layers of the land, including those of its “discovery” and exploration by Europeans. Having stood on Point Sublime and being familiar with some of its history, I was immediately drawn in. Indeed, much of this small book rang familiar, for the author and I share more than a few places visited and books read. She even lives in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley (a name she has surely examined), right down the road from where I once lived.

Amos A. Lawrence, namesake of my current home, came from Massachusetts. Historian Jonathan Earle has said of the man, “He made tons of money – Bill Gates kind of money,” thanks to Lawrence’s father running the greatest mercantile house in the U.S., trading cotton goods.

A desire for a more complete history of this home, our city of Lawrence, must therefore recognize the hundreds of thousands of slaves of the American South whose lives and labor fueled the Lawrence family’s cotton fortune. Time and again, Lauret Savoy’s desire for re-remembering her own past teases apart neglected examples like this, from Washington D.C. and South Carolina to Wisconsin and Arizona.

As a child in California, she says, she never knew race, but once she hit the Grand Canyon on her family’s move east it couldn’t be avoided. She was ignored and then short-changed when buying post cards at the National Park gift shop. In school she read history books full of “savage Indians in the way of Manifest Destiny, and Africans who thrived as slaves and by nature want to serve.” On her adult “journey of and to perception” she learns that heads of Native Americans slaughtered at Colorado’s Sand Creek Massacre ended up in the Smithsonian.

She follows her family history across North America, digging up more and more. Tribes relocated to what is now Oklahoma held enslaved African Americans. What we think are Native tribal names were sometimes made up by Europeans – Ojibway, for example, rather than Anishinaabe. Indeed, the very names on the land are fraught. She visits a South Carolina “Living History” plantation that essentially lives without the history of the slaves who worked it. In Arizona, where her mother served as an Army nurse, she peels apart shifting layers of Apache history, borderlands, and the Jim Crow experience of the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers.

It’s a stunning personal telling of what historian Patricia Nelson Limerick called the Legacy of Conquest, with another important layer: despite all she found, “one idea stood firm: The American land preceded hate.” The sublime Grand Canyon and an early exposure to the Land Ethic of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac  informed this reality, and provided some guidance. “Only slowly did I come to see that I would remain complicit in my own diminishment unless I stepped out of the separate trap: me from you, us from them… relations among people from relations with the land.”

What refreshing words, with more than a trace of wisdom. I look forward to following more of Lauret Savoy’s explorations.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.