Everyday life can be loud – especially for young mothers raising kids in urban Kansas City. But on a recent Tuesday afternoon, a side room in the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library was a haven of quiet industry as a handful of women studied for the next phase in their lives.

The Even Start Family Literacy Program, a federally developed program managed by local literacy powerhouse the Upper Room, combines adult literacy instruction with teaching life skills to parents and children, separately and together. Its core principle: parents are the first teachers.

Five days a week, the Bluford Branch is home to the adult literacy portion of the program. In the large conference room, tutors prepare students for the high-school-equivalency GED exams – a must-pass for those without high school diplomas who want to rise in the workforce.  Meanwhile, their children, aged six months to 8 years, receive free child care and education, also provided by the Upper Room. Currently, nine mothers and 12 children are participating in the Family Literacy Program

Attention shoppers! It’s taken decades of research and a financial slap upside the head, but the CEOs of retail have finally seen what’s been in front of their faces all along: Women are driving the economy. And it took a man to point out that not-so-surprising-to-the-rest-of-us fact.

In his decade-spanning psychological shopping manuals, Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (2000) and What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly (2010), retail consultant and shopping guru Paco Underhill presents a bizarre bazaar of economic information in a fun and stylish manner.

Women possess a financial power that has gone unrecognized by many industries, and yet it shows no sign of abating. What Women Want may sound like another dating manual, but it’s an eye-opening account of how global retailers are beginning to court the customer they’ve counted on but haven’t been counting.

August R. Meyer | Missouri Valley Special Collections

The 36,000 plots in Elmwood Cemetery at Truman Road and Van Brunt Boulevard compose a sweeping patchwork of history, telling the story of Kansas City from its frontier beginnings, to its role in the border conflicts of the Civil War and rise in the railroad era, to the sprawling city we know today.

Buried at Elmwood are some of the people whose names Kansas Citians see on a daily basis: August R. Meyer (1851-1905), mining magnate and father of the parks and boulevards system, who hired landscape architect George Kessler to design Elmwood Cemetery and other sites around town; Simeon Brooks Armour (1828-99), a meat packing patriarch whose family estate stretched from Warwick to Main along the boulevard that bears his name; and Jacob L. Loose (1850-1923), who made his fortune with the Sunshine Biscuit company, selling comestibles such as the Hydrox cookie, and whose name is associated with one of Kansas City’s most famous parks.

The Iliad may be the oldest narrative work in the Western canon. Homer’s epic focuses on an argument between Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior at Troy, and Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces, and the disastrous results of that argument.

What makes this work great? It looks at the serious matter of war, and at the devastating effects of armed conflict. Good men on both sides die, and their families and friends suffer terribly because of their loss. And it raises the issue of the individual and his part in society – to what extent are individual matters, such as honor, checked by obligations to the larger society.

It questions the validity of war – according to legend, the Trojan War began because Paris seduced Helen, wife of Menelaus of Sparta, and brought her to Troy. The Greeks attacked Troy to get Helen back. Stated baldly, that seems a silly reason to go to war. Most readers today would judge Menelaus well rid of his unfaithful spouse. Certainly his marital problems do not directly affect most of the Greek forces, which have only a remote connection to Sparta.

In Robert Stone’s newest collection of short stories, Fun With Problems, the characters have just that. They’re everyday people from all walks of life, yet all are addicts with something broken about them. Stone’s characters are slightly despicable but at the same time familiar enough to ease the reader into their world.

This is no feel-good read; rather, it’s for readers who can be painfully honest with themselves, who can recognize their own bad behavior mirrored in the characters and somehow find a way to defend those actions.  

The seven stories, ranging in length from four pages to nearly novella-length, build like a fitful night’s sleep of fever dreams -- the blanket tangles tighter and tighter as you toss. Though each story tells a different tale, they are linked together by a common core of loneliness and longing. These people’s lives would almost seem comical, if they weren’t so heartbreakingly true.

In the title story, a bitter, small-town attorney finds cruel delight in taking a pretty young thing and starting her down his same path to excess and corruption, before abandoning her to complete the journey by herself. In the shortest of these stories, “Honeymoon,” a man realizes after his second wedding that he has made a terrible mistake, only to follow it up with an even bigger mistake.  

Looking to take in a free flick? The Kansas City Public Library is offering three different film series, each consisting of handpicked films around a theme. A Presidential Perspective comprises movies inspired by the careers of JFK and Richard Nixon. Statuesque Spaniards features films starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. And Animated Horror brings a quartet of cartoonish frights.

A Presidential Perspective

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m. in October at the Central Library

While Hollywood is often more captivated by idealized fictional presidents than actual presidents, this film selection offers cinematic depictions of both John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. This film series is part of our Great Debates Revisited program of special events and book discussions.

Do you ever look up at the night sky and wonder …What else is out there? What’s left to discover in all those stars? What will they find in space in my lifetime? If so, you might enjoy reading Percival’s Planet, the new novel by Michael Byers.

Combining astronomy with a glimpse into 1930’s society, Byers spent five years researching every last detail for Percival’s Planet in order to successfully blend historical figures and facts with a supporting cast of fictional characters and subplots in a story which is ultimately about the discovery of Pluto.

The novel takes its name from Percival Lowell, an early 20th century astronomer who was highly ridiculed in his unsuccessful search for a planet beyond Neptune, which he named Planet X. Byers’ story re-imagines the early years of Clyde Tombaugh, a real-life, uneducated farm boy and amateur astronomer from Kansas who lucked into a job at Lowell Observatory and amazingly discovered Planet X (Pluto) in 1930.

In the brilliant and gritty HBO series Rome, Cleopatra is a crafty and ambitious seductress who charms first Caesar and then Mark Antony for the sake of preserving Egypt (and her power over it) at a time when Rome was transitioning from republic to empire.

In this clip from the series (below), Cleopatra visits Mark Antony in Rome to ask his help in getting a public declaration of paternity for her son, Caesarion. (In the show, as in history, Cleopatra claimed that her son’s father was the murdered dictator Julius Caesar.)

Is this flirtatious, soap-operatic scene ripped from the pages of history? Of course not -- well, not really. Like so many other depictions of Cleopatra in historical fiction and pop culture, from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, HBO’s is based scantly on fact and vastly on imagination.

Thanks to CBS, Richard Nixon lost his first presidential election six weeks before Election Day – at least according to his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

In Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, we get four stories: the histories of apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. You might not think the story of a plant would be very compelling, but as our Plaza Branch Barista’s Book Club learned, Pollan intrigues readers through careful management of historical facts, research, and personal anecdotes.

Pollan, a journalist, author, and food activist, follows the co-evolution of each plant with humans – how they interact, how they have affected one another, and how that affects the world – using the framework of four human desires: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and food.

Ever had a friend who would blurt out all the wrong things at the all the wrong times and yet was always funny in a screwball sort of way? That describes the wacky vibe and self-deprecating tone of Jen Lancaster’s new memoir, My Fair Lazy.

In her amusing fifth book, titled My Fair Lazy: One Reality Television Addict's Attempt to Discover If Not Being A Dumb Ass Is the New Black, or, a Culture-Up Manifesto, Lancaster decides to put down the remote on reality TV and focus on “an emergency cultural makeover,” or as she alternately calls it, “a Jenaissance.”

This true story begins when Lancaster meets her idol and fellow writer, Candace Bushnell, of Sex and the City fame. In a conversation between the two, Lancaster realizes she embarrassingly doesn’t have much to discuss past the latest episode of The Bachelor.

As the pages turn and Lancaster’s fast-food, couch-potato, trash-TV lifestyle painfully blossoms into a cosmopolitan success, she discovers new restaurants, enjoys fine wines, goes to live theater, takes in various music forms and eclectic art styles, and even reads classic literature.

Wick Thomas

From sowing community gardens to starting grassroots organizations, Wick Thomas has fought for more causes than you can shake a picket sign at. When he's not planning a rally or hitting the political-science textbooks for school at UMKC, Thomas is championing libraries as beacons of free speech.

Lithe, bedecked with body piercings and sporting a different hair color every week, Thomas cuts a dashing, unconventional figure among the stacks in Central Youth Services, where he works as a Library associate.

When we spoke with the 23-year-old from Drexel, Missouri, his hair was sandy brown with blond highlights, teased on top and buzzed on the sides. His first gig at the Kansas City Public Library made use of his chameleonic appearance: wearing a costume and giving tours of the January 2008 exhibit Once Upon a Time: Exploring the World of Fairy Tales at the Central Library.

He worked the next two years as a technical assistant at the Ruiz Branch, where he found that his alternative appearance broke down barriers with youthful patrons.

"I think adults are intimidated by [my appearance], but kids respond to it and want to talk, and it's a good way to open them up to talking about the library," he says.

Leo Tolstoy

At about 1,400 pages (depending on the translation), War and Peace is quite a challenge. The weak of heart, or those who suffer easily from eye strain, need not apply themselves to this work. That said, Leo Tolstoy’s epic is well worth the effort.

This historical novel is set in the early 19th century, during Russia’s wars with Napoleon. Covering about a decade’s time (from about 1805 to 1815), the novel treats about a dozen main characters, exploring how they are affected by the wars and the peace that separates and follows the wars.

What distinguishes this novel from other historical novels dealing with the same period, such as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series or Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, is the depth of Tolstoy’s exploration of his characters’ lives and the way in which they are woven into the fabric of the history of those times. This is not simply an historical novel, but a meditation on history, using fiction to tell history.

Riverboat Illustration

A leader of the regionalist movement in 20th century American art, Thomas Hart Benton showed the same fascination for ordinary people and bucolic settings that his fellow Missourian Mark Twain popularized in his writings the century before. Benton was the natural choice to illustrate three of Twain's books reprinted in the 1930s and '40s.

It was nearly 30 years after Twain’s death in 1910 that the Limited Editions Club of New York (which had already paired Matisse with James Joyce’s Ulysses and Picasso with Lysistrata) asked Benton to illustrate reissued versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi.

Joan Stack, art curator of the State Historical Society of Missouri, is presenting a lecture on Benton’s Limited Editions Club illustrations at the Central Library on Sunday, September 19 at 2 p.m. (Details here.) She says that Benton “embraced Twain as a kindred spirit, someone who was as inspired by the land and people of Missouri just as much as he was.”

What's next? It’s the book lover's eternal question. Your Facebook friends may have suggestions, but have they done the research? Amazon tells you what other people bought, but how relevant is that, really? When you're looking for that next great read, the book recommendation database NoveList finds fiction to match your tastes.

Developed by trained readers' advisory librarians, NoveList by EBSCOhost is a comprehensive fiction recommendation engine that you can use for free with your Kansas City Public Library card. To access it, go to our databases page and search by topic (Languages & Literature) or alphabetically (“N”). Or just click here. Log in by typing in the number on the back of your Library card and entering your PIN. (If you forgot your PIN, fill out this online form to have it immediately emailed to you.)

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