Traveling the Silk Road

 Traveling the Silk Road :Ancient Pathway to the Modern World conjures images of romance and mystery, but in fact the Silk Road was a vast network of trade routes stretching over 5,000 miles from China through Central Asia and the Arabian Penninsula and into Europe. This was the first “information highway”–goods were exchanged along with news, ideas, foods, religions and cultures. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity all found their way to new cultures along the Silk Road, from 600CE to the 14th century. The use of the  first paper and paper money spread east from China as glass and glassware  were traded from Istanbul towards the east. Goods such as silk, spices, wine, tea, cotton and metal items all spread from Asia to the rest of the world along the Silk Road. From Xi’an, China to Istanbul (Constantinople) and beyond, cultures were influenced by the trade items passing through. Xi’an was a thriving city with many religions and languages, Istanbul was at the crossroads of two continents –  a thriving trade port and Baghdad was a scholarly city with a university and 36 public libraries in the 12oo’s–a center of learning, writing and art. Recent archaeological finds have shown the extent of trade along the various routes, and this book is beautifully illustrated with photos of artifacts as well as of art work and maps of the routes. The book follows the route of the Silk Road in stages and includes fascinating photographs, of places such as the karez (wells) in the Turfan area of China that were built in the sixth century and are still in use today. This beautiful publication by the American Museum of Natural History offers a glimpse back to a time when ideas and cultures were being shared and explored.  Check out this book and visit some of the  the exotic stops along the Silk Road.

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman

>Gritty and atmospheric, The Little Russian, grabbed me and held me in the early twentieth century drama that Jewish Russians experienced.  Vacillating between the horror of pogroms where Jews were massacred, to the lfestyle of a very wealthy grain merchant, we follow the story of Berta Alshonsky.
  As a child, Berta tastes the pleasures of money while staying with wealthy relatives in Moscow. She is sent back to life in the Ukraine, Little Russia, as a grocer’s daughter in a small hamlet when she is no longer needed as a companion to her cousin.   A wealthy grain buyer falls for Berta and life is easy once more until her husband’s secret life as an arms smuggler is revealed.  Berta makes the fateful decision to stay in the Ukraine with her children when her husband flees to America.  The tumultous war time and lost love reminds me of the epic Dr. Zhivago.  Berta’s courage and determination to find her husband are tested in her fight for survival and protection of her children. This first novel for Susan Sherman is an impressive beginning.

Historic Photos of Kansas by David Knopf


As I’ve traveled throughout the country, I’ve heard way too many jokes about living in Kansas.  I take them in stride, but always defend my state.  One of the things I love about Kansas is the rich history: the Native Americans, abolitionists, farmers, teetotalers, and educators who made Kansas into the place we know today.  Historic Photos of Kansas gives us a chance to browse through the past.  This beautiful book allowed me to see what my grandmother’s soddy may have looked like or my mother as a little girl on the farm.  There are even a few pictures of Manhattan back in the day.  This glimpse into the past is thoroughly enjoyable.

A Century of Memories: The RMS Titanic

>By Marcia Allen
Technical Services & Collections Manager

    She was the pride of the White Star Line.  Built over the course of two years in the shipyards of Belfast, the RMS Titanic was not only the largest ship afloat at the time, but she was also labeled “unsinkable,” due partly to her watertight compartments. On her maiden voyage she carried a wide mix of passengers: steerage quarters were filled with new immigrants, and upper levels hosted the wealthy and famous.  She sailed on April 10, 1912 and ran into disaster in the North Atlantic in the late hours of April 15, 1912.  While her initial collision with an iceberg was not considered lethal, the fact that some five of her 16 airtight compartments were compromised proved fatal.   In a little over two hours, the ship foundered and sank, leaving some 1500 people of over 2200 passengers to perish in the icy sea.
    This month marks the 100th anniversary of that terrible tragedy.  For those who curious to learn more, there are countless resources available designed to inform about the ship’s specifications, the passenger lists, and the even the resulting courtroom investigations. We can read of survivor testimonials and burial sites for the unfortunate, as well as efforts to salvage the wreckage.
    Of course, Walter Lord’s 1955 fascinating book, entitled A Night to Remember, remains a classic.  Lord’s account follows the passengers and the crew as each faced the disaster in his or her own fashion. Destined to become a film of the same name, this story remains among the more famous of the retellings.
    Dr. Robert Ballard is considered a scientific authority on the event, given his expertise in locating and exploring the wreckage.  With the aid of a small robotic submarine, Ballard was able to locate the debris field that others had been unable to pinpoint for so long.  Titanic Revealed, a haunting dvd documentary, recalls Ballard’s original discovery.  Ballard also assembled an excellent picture book of photographs taken during his exploration.  Called Titanic: The Last Great Images, the book offers us eerie glimpses of the crusted bow and the battered remains of children’s shoes found on the ocean floor.  The book also offers period photos taken both during the ship’s construction and as she departed.
    Another beautifully arranged book of photographs, Titanic: An Illustrated History, involves the work of author Don Lynch.  Among other highlights, Lynch presents a foldout of the ship’s layout and interior shots of the first class staircase, the second-class public rooms and the third-class dining room.  The book also supplies a valuable overview of the tragedy as it unfolded.  Readers can even see the position of various lifeboats over the course of the sinking.
    For those who seek a more personal look at the tragedy, Titanic Voices: Memories from the Fateful Voyage seems the perfect book.  Donald Hyslop, Alastair Forsyth and Shelia Jemima assembled this fine collection of letters, photos and testimonials.  Of particular interest are the personal recollections supplied by the many survivors and the heartbreaking photographs of various memorials, such as the White Star Company’s church service in Southampton.
    For those who wish to do more reading on the event, Stephanie Barczewski’s Titanic: A Night Remembered includes detailed biographies of some of the dead.  Among them are the ship’s captain, Edward Smith, and band member Wallace Hartley, who played music to the end.
And Brad Matsen, author of Titanic’s Last Secrets, adds more to what we know by retelling the explorations of John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, who not only investigated the wreckage of the Titanic, but also the remains of the Britannic. 
     Interested in one of this year’s titles?  Shadow of the Titanic by Andrew Wilson is one of the finer offerings.  Wilson’s take is unique, however, in that he conveys the dismal lives of the survivors after the collision. So many suffered from what we now recognize as survivors’ guilt.   For example, Madeleine Astor, widow of John Jacob Astor, went on to marry several more times and eventually lost her portion of the Astor fortune.  Duff Gordon, one of the many wealthy, never overcame rumors that he had paid lifeboat rowers to ignore those struggling in the icy waters.
     Reflection on the fate of the Titanic leads to thoughts on the nature of heroism, vulnerability, and randomness of chance.  The library has an excellent collection of titles that can offer you more about that fateful trip aboard the pride of the White Star Line.  

The World of Downton Abbey

>Relive Downtown Abbey, the wildly loved PBS series by reading The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes.This stunning book is filled with beautiful color photos of the cast members in costume to give the impression that you are back in the midst of this favorite drama. The  oversized-volume is packed with sumptuous full-color pictures of the production, the cast, historical connections and its shining star, Highclere Castle, the grand manor house in Hampshire where the series is filmed .
The well researched material gives a fascinating historical background for life as a servant just before and during the First World War in England, but also has an interesting perspective on life’s tremendous expectations of the upper class, such as always dressing for dinner.  Jessica Fellowes, the niece of Julian Fellowes the writer and creator of Downton Abbey, gives us fresh insights into this fascinating world.

Custer in Kansas: Breaking in the Boy General


By John Pecoraro, Assistant Director

George Armstrong Custer is one of the most iconic figures in the history of the American West. Colorful and controversial, he was brevetted a general at age 23, a Civil War hero, and dead on the plains of Montana at age 36. Most people know the story of his and the 7th Cavalry’s defeat at the Little Big Horn, but perhaps fewer people realize that Custer spent several years in Kansas.

From November 1866 until 1871, while posted to Fort Riley, Kansas, Custer found some of his greatest success and failure as a commander. Custer’s years in the state are the focus of author Jeff Barnes’ program, “Custer in Kansas: Breaking in the Boy General,” which he will present at the Manhattan Public Library on Wednesday, March 7, at 7 p.m.

Barnes is the author of the newly published “The Great Plains Guide to Custer.” In this historical travel guide, Barnes pinpointed 85 forts, battles and other sites west of the Mississippi associated with the legendary general. A former newspaper reporter and editor, Barnes writes and lives in Omaha. He is a Nebraska native, a journalism graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a frequently requested speaker with the Nebraska Humanities Council.

There is a wide range of titles and resources available to Custer history buffs. Websites of interest include, featuring Custer’s genealogy, a photo gallery, and a list of curious questions and topics. Jeff Barnes’ website,, includes links to historic sites associated with Custer.

Manhattan Public Library has dozens of titles about Custer’s life and the Little Bighorn battle, and hundreds of titles about the history of the American West. In The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, author Nathaniel Philbrick sketched the two larger-than-life antagonists: Sitting Bull, whose charisma and political savvy earned him the position of leader of the Plains Indians, and George Armstrong Custer, a man with a reputation for fearless and often reckless courage. Philbrick reminded readers that the Battle of the Little Bighorn was also, even in victory, the last stand for the Sioux and Cheyenne Indian nations.

A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn by Jim Donovan explored the disastrous battle and the finger-pointing that was its aftermath. Custer, conveniently dead, took the brunt of the blame. The truth, however, was far more complex, and this book related the entire story, bringing to light details of the U.S. Army cover-up.

In The Day the World Ended at Little Bighorn, Joseph Marshall revealed a picture of the battle previously available only in the Lakota oral tradition. He explored the significance of the battle to the Lakota, and considered the consequences it had for all Native Americans.

Louise Barnett investigated the life, death, and mythic afterlife of Custer in her book Touched by Fire. Barnett traced the complexities of Custer’s personality and attempted to understand how this famed military tactician waged an impossible attack at the Little Bighorn.

Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star is part study of Plains Indian life, part military history, and part character study. This author used meticulous research and a novelist’s eye to tell a story of heroism, foolishness, and savagery.

Elizabeth Bacon Custer remained a devoted widow for fifty-seven years after her husband’s death. She was an outspoken advocate for her husband’s legacy. The myth of Custer, his place as an iconic figure in American history, is largely due to her efforts. Elizabeth Custer, or Libbie as she was known, wrote two books about the experiences and hardships she shared with the General. Tenting on the Plains concerns the Custers’ experiences immediately after the Civil War in Texas and Kanas. In Boots and Saddles, Libbie wrote about their final years on the plains at Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory.

Finally George Armstrong Custer also wrote a book about his experiences, My Life on the Plains: or, Personal Experiences with Indians. In this collection of his magazine articles, Custer recounted his life in the years immediately following the Civil War and revealed his often ambiguous attitudes towards the Indians.

If you’re interested in George Armstrong Custer and Kansas, you won’t want to miss “Custer in Kansas: Breaking in the Boy General,” presented by Jeff Barnes at the Manhattan Public Library on Wednesday, March 7, at 7 p.m.

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness

>Interested in Africa, I picked up Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller.  This is her fourth book and a narrative of her mother’s love for Africa where her family lived during the 1950′s and 60′s.  Alexandra was raised by an eccentric mother with a zest for life.  Nicola was born in Scotland but raised in Kenya. Her love for Africa is expressed through this narrative as we learn the British colonial period’s history of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.  Alexandra presents her mother with such spirit as she describes her love for the land and creatures even though she experiences untold hardships and tragedy as she runs from war. The Tree of Forgetfulness in Zambia is where the mother presently thrives raising tilapia (as the premier producer of fingerlings in the country) and sharing her love for all things African.

London Subterranean


By Marcia Allen
Technical Services & Collections Manager

·    City fathers decided the city of London required a new county hall in 1910.  When construction crews began excavating the site, they stumbled upon the immense ruins of a Roman galley.

·    The bombings of London during World War II obviously caused massive destruction.  From the ruins, however, were exposed the foundations of an ancient Roman fort.  Further reconstruction revealed a complete Roman bath-house located beneath Thames Street.

·    Treasure-seekers frequently stumble upon dusty mugs and other half-hidden artifacts near the Fleet River.  The site once housed the Gaol of London, an 800-year-old prison that was leveled in 1845.

    Those fond of reading history, archaeology, or travel literature will find a rare treasure in Peter Ackroyd’s new book entitled London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets.  This thin book is an astounding guide to the unexpected ruins left behind by the passing of the years.  As Ackroyd says in his opening paragraph:

 “Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, pipes and cables, springs and passages, crypts sand sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day.”

Given that caution, who could resist the promise of Ackroyd’s expertise? What follows immediately captures readers’ attention.  There is, for example, an entire section on London sewers.  The oldest known treatment of sewage is said to have occurred during the thirteenth century, when pipes were installed in some areas to carry waste underground.  As early as 1531, London had a formal board of officials who supervised the sewers and authorized the installation of new ones.  That was certainly an improvement over the open fetid pits previously used, but still there were some serious problems.  Methane gas explosions and “the great stink” of 1858 were major setbacks for human hygiene.  And the horrifying tales of cholera outbreaks and the reports of gargantuan rats roaming the dark tunnels go on and on. 

Yet another section describes the burial grounds, some of them quite old, located throughout the city.  The grave of Celsus, a policeman from long ago, was located in Camomile Street.  Ackroyd assures the reader that there were as many as 200 separate burial sites located within the city, many of which are no longer marked.  He reminds us that the cemetery of Christ Church, Spitalfields, was open for 130 years beginning in 1729, and that during that time, an unbelievable 68,000 people were interred within its walls.

Obviously, London has undergone great cosmetic change.  The first established community, for example, began to sink almost before it was completed.  This was due to the mixture of sand clay, chalk and gravel upon which the city was built.  As a result, above-ground housing soon became basement-level dwellings.  How did the citizens deal with the sinking?  They continued to build atop ground level, so that now the original dwellings lie some 30 feet below the surface.  Of course, old roadways, houses and personal belongings became part of the well-packed detritus of history.

Ackroyd’s accounts of found treasure are perhaps the most fascinating tales of the book.  He reminds us that a huge stone head, crafted to resemble the emperor Hadrian, was discovered in the bed of the Thames in 1832.  Further, an intact crypt of a long-forgotten monastery was exposed when workers were digging on Bouverie Street in 1867.  A long-hidden trap door was uncovered in 1865 when workers were repairing Oxford Street.  Curious investigators pried open the door to reveal a large room, in which a formal pool or bath was still being fed by a bubbling spring.

Ackroyd’s London underground is surely a place of evil, of trepidation.  Prisons, he reminds us, were originally built underground.  And the tunnels beneath the city were used extensively by criminals for hundreds of years.  A natural fear of the unknown adds to uneasiness toward what lies beneath the surface.
 But Ackroyd’s underground is also a place of grand adventure.  The forgotten booty of another age frequently astonishes those who find such treasures.  And the old reminders of past lives tell their own wonderful stories.  This lovely little book is a brief glimpse of the world as it once was.

My Thoughts Be Bloody by Nora Titone


There are numerous books recounting Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, but My Thoughts Be Bloody by Nora Titone puts a whole new spin on it. Instead of focusing on the conspiracy itself or the manhunt after the tragic deed, Titone takes an in-depth look at John Wilkes Booth’s background and what could have possibly motivated him to assassinate a president. Titone’s premise is that Booth’s dysfunctional family heavily contributed to his motivation to murder Lincoln. John Wilkes and his siblings grew up as illegitimate children of Junius and Mary Ann Booth. Junius Brutus Booth was something of a genius and a famous actor, but also an alcoholic. John’s brother Edward, older by four years, became the most famous American actor of his generation. John Wilkes constantly lived in the shadow of his famous older brother and father as he attempted to become an actor himself. While inheriting the striking good looks of his father, John failed to inherit his talent for acting. He bumbles along from one stage performance to the next, seemingly in denial of his lack of talent. He becomes increasingly caught up in the South’s fate in the Civil War while tensions with his older brother also escalate. Titone presents a fascinating look into the psyche and family dynamics of Booth and uses the Booth family’s own words whenever possible to tell the story. Equally interesting are all the facts Titone presents about the life of actors during the 19th century.

The Odd Lessons of History: The Garfield Assassination By Marcia Allen – Technical Services & Collections Manager


A few years ago, I was amazed to read Candice Millard’s first book, The River of Doubt, a harrowing tale of adventure that involved Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt’s ill-fated 1912 trip down the Amazon. Despite what seemed to be a well-planned journey, the excursion was a disaster replete with unanticipated predators and sudden deaths for some of the travelers. Millard’s account was vividly written, and it earned the label of a “Best Book of the Year” by the New York Times Book Review.

I looked forward to Millard’s latest book, Destiny of the Republic, with great anticipation, and I was not disappointed. This new account of the assassination of President James A. Garfield is just as captivating as that earlier Roosevelt book. But as I read, I was struck by the ironies that made the 1881 tragedy play out the way it did.

Would-be assassin Charles Guiteau lacked any substantial reason for the shooting. He didn’t have any particular desire to kill Garfield; rather he was disappointed with the way his own life was playing out. He approached Garfield with the request that he be appointed ambassador to France, despite any experience or talent for such a position. When his request was denied, Guiteau concluded that killing the president was the answer. When the deed was completed, Guiteau was convinced that newly invested President Chester Arthur would free him from prison because he would certainly appreciate Guiteau’s noble gesture. Guiteau even spoke of being rescued by General William T. Sherman who would come storming the prison and bestow honors on the assassin. Guiteau’s delusions created this confusing scenario that baffled all those who dealt with him.

Yet another irony is found in the wounding of Garfield. Medical experts of that time felt confident that the president would survive the shooting; the Civil War had repeatedly demonstrated that shooting victims could survive much worse than what Garfield suffered. But: these were the early days of the discovery of septicemia. In fact, most physicians doubted that such a threat really existed. Doctors Smith Townsend and D. Willard Bliss, who took over the care of the president, put no faith in the new notion of blood poisoning. When they examined Garfield, both probed the two wounds with unwashed hands, thus making infection a certainty. When Garfield died, after suffering greatly for some two months, his body was riddled with infection, and the subsequent autopsy revealed tragic miscalculations that doomed the president. Just a few years later, the combination of X-ray and antiseptic treatment would have spared the man.

Alexander Graham Bell’s involvement in the tale is equally ironic. In addition to recently inventing the telephone, Bell was working on what he called an “induction balance.” This machine, he determined, would act as a metal detector. When he learned that the president had been shot and the location of a missing bullet was a mystery, he rushed to help with his invention. Once again, fate interfered. Dr. Bliss, the physician now in charge, directed Bell to use his machine on the wrong side of Garfield’s body. Bell believed that his invention malfunctioned, and he was crushed to learn that the apparatus would have worked if used near the right area of the body.

Maybe, too, there’s irony in Garfield’s presidency. Today most readers know little about the man and his vision for the country. This is certainly due to the fact that he was in office for only four short months. Millard’s information about the president’s background is quite revealing. A self-educated man who was a voracious reader, Garfield was born in abject poverty. He proved to be an outstanding orator, and when the 1880 election approached, his nomination surprised him more than it did the others who backed him. What he might have accomplished in office remains a great mystery.

Enough about irony. This is an outstanding book which I recommend to anyone interested in history, biography or just a well-told story. I learned much about a historical period that was vague to me, and I learned more about the spread of infection than I ever cared to discover. This is top-notch writing from an excellent writer. I look forward to her next efforts.

A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness-and a Trove of Letters-Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression


Ted Gup, a legendary investigative reporter for The Washington Post and Time Magazine and now the director of the Emerson College Journalism Center in Boston, has written a compelling memoir of his fascinating grandfather, Sam Stone.

Sam J Stone, a businessman from Canton, Ohio, died in 1981 at he age of 90. Ted thought he knew his grandfather until his mother handed him a briefcase filled with family papers. Letters addressed to B. Virdot were written responses to the generosity of his grandfather who had run a newspaper ad at Christmas 1933 offering money to needy citizens who described their hardships. At this time during the heart of the Great Depression, most families were struggling and many didn’t know from where their next meal would come. Ted discovered the true story of his grandfather’s painful background as he tracked down the families of these letters and researched the 75 years of hidden history of his grandfather.

Five dollars given to 150 different individuals brought far-reaching benefit to Canton white-collar businessmen. The thank-you letters revealed the immense suffering and psychological trauma suffered by ordinary individuals that had had good jobs, nice homes and money in the bank. Overnight many found their jobs gone, homes repossessed and banks closed. A Secret Gift encourages introspection as we look at the economic climate today and see how quickly life changed less than a century ago for our relatives and friends.

The King’s Speech


Those of us who are interested in what’s playing at the theater and which movies are Oscar contenders will already know of The King’s Speech, a movie nominated for this year’s Best Picture. Some of you may not know that the book was written by the grandson of Lionel Logue to coincide with the making of the movie and add to discerning the true story. Happily, the movie and book complement each other.

Mark Logue, the co-author, was contacted by Iain Canning, the producer of the film, in June 2009, hoping to make their film as historically accurate as possible. Mark set out to try and discover as much as he could about his grandfather who had died twelve years before he was born. He found a vast treasure of documents, diaries, letters and scrapbooks kept by his grandfather. Additionally, he found an appointment card with his grandfather’s spider-like handwriting, in which he described his first encounter with the future King in his small consulting room. These historical sources told the story of the professional help a commoner gave the Duke of York, future King of England, with his stammering and stuttering. They also served to show an amazing relationship of friendship lasting for decades between the King and Lionel. The book is a non-fiction history of their lives filling in many details about their families, the second World War, and how a commoner introduced a

stuffy royal to the typical Brit’s life.

Both men dearly loved their wives and children and the King was helped and encouraged enormously by his wife, Elizabeth, who found Lionel and pushed her husband to try one more doctor for help. The additional historical facts in this book really color in the story of an outstanding movie. I’ll be cheering it on this Sunday during the Oscars.

The Kennedy Detail by Gerald Blaine


There are events that affect our collective national psyche and we can clearly recall exactly where we were and what we were doing when such events took place. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was one such event. In his remarkable book The Kennedy Detail: JFK’s Secret Service Agents Break Their Silence, author Gerald Blaine recounts his story and the story of the Secret Service detail assigned to protect the Kennedy family. He has compiled notes from interviews and journals from fellow agents into a vivid, detailed account of the weeks before and after the assassination. The story of these men is one of devotion to their duty and heroism. The intimate and caring relationships they develop with the Kennedy family are touching and heartbreaking, and the devastating toll the assassination took on their personal lives is staggering. The story of Clint Hill, Jackie Kennedy’s agent, is especially moving, and the description of the agent holding Caroline’s hand through the limousine window as the funeral cortege moves through Washington is gripping in its emotional intensity.

This is an amazing look at the men who tried to protect JFK and at how his assassination forever changed our country –a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Ted Kennedy


Last month our nation witnessed the final chapter of one of the most fascinating stories we have ever seen. Ted Kennedy was a lifelong statesman, a member of our most mythologized family, and a man with a troubled past. After the wealth of material that has been written about him and his family, True Compass, his memoir, allows us a glimpse of his life from his perspective. Whether or not you agreed with the man, his story will be an interesting read, both as a tale of one life and as a piece of our nation’s history.

Native American History and Culture


The PBS Series “We Shall Remain”–a 5 part series about Native American history–is set to premiere on April 13. In conjunction with this series, the Manhattan Public Library has an exhibit available for viewing through April 5, “A Photographic Narrative: The Indians of Kansas”, which illustrates the diversity of contemporary Indians in Kansas. The library is also sponsoring a performance by internationally-known Navajo performer and cultural educator Dennis Lee Rogers. He will be performing on Saturday, April 18 at 2:00 in the library auditorium.

In addition, the library has added new resources about Native American history, including the DVD’s 500 Nations, Geronimo and the Apache Resistance, and Trail of tears: Cherokee Legacy. If you would like to find more information about library programs or about Native American history, please ask at the Information Desk or at Reference.