Readers Scene

Zakes Mda by Jim Shirey

As a boy in South Africa, Zakes Mda saw his father dragged off by police in the middle of the night. His crime was criticizing the racist white government.

He saw family friend Nelson Mandela thrown into prison for his opposition to apartheid.

And while still a teen he followed his father into exile in the British Protectorate of Basutoland (now Lesotho) – all because of the belief that black Africans should control their own destinies.

That would seem more than enough reason for Mda (pronounced mmmm-DAH) to nurse a case of anger and bitterness.

And yet those negative emotions are nowhere to be found in his new memoir, Sometimes There Is A Void.

Mda, 63, says it’s because of Ubuntu, an African philosophy that embraces brotherhood, charity and interconnectedness.

It’s a bit like the American concept of “forgive and forget,” Mda explained in a recent phone conversation from Athens, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Ohio.

“The forgive part is very important. But not the forget part. We don’t want to forget. What happened in the past is part of who we are, part of our identity. We remember so that the lessons of the past can be used in the future.”

Jennifer Phegley

Way before online personals were a twinkle in Craig Newmark’s eye, our Victorian forebears had their own version of dating services to assist them in the search for a mate.

“The were called matrimonial advertisements, though we’d think of them as Victorian personal ads,” says Jennifer Phegley, chair of the UMKC English Department and author of the new book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England.

“It turns out that in the 1850s Victorians began regularly advertising for love. That wasn’t something I’d ever read about in the canonical novels of the period.”

Phegley discusses the Victorian road to love in a free presentation on Thursday, February 9 at 6:30 p.m. in the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.

Admission is free. A 6 p.m. reception precedes the event. RSVP online or call 816.701.3407. Free parking is available at the Library District Parking Garage at 10th and Baltimore.

Marriage and Courtship

In honor of Valentine’s Day, the Kansas City Public Library is inviting its online fans to write personal ads for their favorite characters from Victorian literature. The writer of the best ad will receive a box of Christopher Elbow chocolates and a free copy of Jennifer Phegley’s book Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England.

Phegley, who is a professor of English at UMKC, is discussing her book at the Central Library on Thursday, February 9, at 6:30 p.m. The event is free; RSVP here to attend.

SWF, 18, seeks wealthy, stylish husband…

Despite the images of chivalrous lads and chaste ladies, the Victorians were an amorous bunch. For evidence, one need only pick up a newspaper from the era … and flip to the back.

That’s right. Ladies and gents in the mid-19th century found love through the advent of a new medium – one that isn’t so far off from today’s online social media sites like OKCupid and

“In the 1850s, Victorians began regularly advertising for love,” Phegley says. “They were called ‘matrimonial advertisements,’ though we’d think of them as Victorian personal ads.”

Army Navy 1944 program cover

There are lots of college football rivalries. But the annual collision of Army and Navy is in a league of its own. Even for people who don’t follow either team during the fall, the season-capping Army-Navy game is a big deal.

Part of that is tradition. In the pre-Super Bowl era, the Army-Navy game was widely considered the most important football contest of the year.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that these are true amateurs playing for the love of the sport. Few graduates of Annapolis or West Point will go on to play professional football after completion of their military service.

Instead they’re playing for tradition and honor and inter-service bragging rights – and the fans appreciate that.

Meet the Past Edgar Snow

What does Star Trek have to do with Kansas City journalist Edgar Snow, let alone Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China to meet with Mao Tse-Tung?

Randy Roberts A Team for America

In his new book A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game that Rallied a Nation, historian Randy Roberts talks about the pivotal 1944 football game that came to symbolize national pride in a time of war.

Wendell Potter portrait

Wendell Potter has good news and bad news. The bad news, according to him, is that health care in America is sick. Life expectancy and infant mortality rates here are lower than in some Third World countries. People die because they can’t get insurance – upwards of 45,000 a year.

Justice Stephen Breyer

This past Thursday at the Plaza Branch, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer stood before a crowd of nearly 700 people and made a strong case for civic literacy in the face of cynicism.

Just One Catch book cover

Joseph Heller was lying in bed in his four-room apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, New York, when suddenly it came to him: It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.

The next morning, Heller went to work at the Madison Avenue ad agency where he was a copywriter and wrote, in longhand, the first chapter of what would become his masterpiece.

“Before the end of the week I had typed it out and sent it to Candida Donadio, my agent,” Heller recalled in a 1974 interview with George Plimpton. “One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two.”

That was 1953. Over the next eight years, in what would prove a laborious, agonizing, and, in retrospect, appropriately postmodern, process, Heller began birthing a book titled Catch-18. Working from a series of index cards, Heller crafted a nonlinear, looping, hilarious, and irreverent fictional narrative based on his career as a B-25 bombardier in World War Two.

As Donadio began shopping the manuscript, many editors found it incomprehensible.

We all know Emma Lazarus for giving voice to the Statue of Liberty through her sonnet "The New Colossus" (Give me your tired, your poor). But as Esther Schor shows in her enthralling biography of Lazarus, she was a feminist, a Zionist and an internationally famous Jewish-American writer – before those categories even existed.

Benton illustration

One of the greatest artistic collaborations in Missouri history is on display right now at the Central Library. Our exhibit Mark Twain and Tom Benton: Pictures, Prose, and Song features illustrations Benton made for three limited edition Twain novels, along with lithographs by Benton, a record album, first edition Twain books, and portraits of both men.

In his new book, Genius of Place, biographer Justin Martin says that Frederick Law Olmsted “may well be the most important American historical figure that the average person knows least about.”

If the average person, indeed, knows him at all, it’s most likely for Olmsted’s famous design of New York’s Central Park or possibly the U.S. Capitol Grounds. But as Martin, a former Kansas Citian, shows, there was a lot more to Olmsted than his green grounds.

“Fred-Law” (as his family sometimes called him) was born in Hartford, Conn., in 1822 – a time when Missouri was the westernmost state and middle names were fairly uncommon. The first three decades of his life would take him through a series of wildly divergent and fascinating careers before he more or less fell into the role of America’s premier landscape architect.

This Wednesday, September 7, 2011, at the Central Library, Martin returns to Kansas City to discuss not only Olmsted’s impact on the urban American landscape (and, by extension, its psyche) but also Olmsted’s other lives – as sailor, farmer, journalist, abolitionist, Civil War medic in an early version of the Red Cross, environmentalist, and, above all, reformer. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. following a 6 p.m. reception. RSVP now.

Scarlett O'Hara

What do you call one part Southern Comfort, three parts cranberry juice, and a squeeze of lime shaken and served up in a martini glass? Answer: a bibulous good time for a bibliophile like yourself at the Kansas City Public Library this Tuesday night.

The name of the cocktail described above is the Scarlett O’Hara. It was invented by a post-Prohibition New York liquor distributor to boost sales by capitalizing on the mass popularity of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 blockbuster novel.

The drink, like its namesake heroine, appealed to a deep-seated American nostalgia for a quainter, simpler, more genteel Old South – the antebellum land of plantations, moonlight, and magnolias, far away from the technological clatter and urban nightmares up North.

It was, unfortunately, also a South filled with reprehensible ethnic stereotypes.

In her new book, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture, University of North Carolina – Charlotte historian Karen L. Cox argues that pervading American conceptions of the South were framed by those who did not live there, i.e. white Americans of the East Coast.

Screwballs or doosras? Pitchers or bowlers? Hot dogs and beer or cucumber sandwiches and tea? The strangely parallel worlds of baseball and cricket needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Astonish your school by grabbing a Tom Sawyer e-book.

The Kansas City Public Library is bringing back The Big Read this year, and you needn’t plunk down cash to buy in. You can download e-book versions of this year’s selection, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain from the Library’s website to keep and use on your e-reader free of charge. 

For the fourth year, the Library has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help fund a series of public programs to get everyone reading and talking about the same book. This year’s Big Read selection hits closer to home than ever before.

In fact, it’s going to be hard to escape the sounds of Sawyer this fall in Kansas City. One of the first productions in the brand-new, gush-worthy Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts will be the world premiere of Tom Sawyer – A Ballet in Three Acts, performed by Kansas City Ballet. As a special treat for our community of readers, the Library is partnering with KC Ballet to bring patrons a preview of the production, featuring Tony-winning composer Maury Yeston. Other Big Read events – including a visit from Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1 editor Robert Hirst – will be announced soon.