Readers Scene

Three years ago, Blendtec CEO Tom Dickinson came up with a simple but highly effective means of advertising his product online to millions of people without spending millions of dollars. The secret formula: Household Object + High-end Blender = Supreme Entertainment for the Folks Online.

Bruce Roach

For a while there, it looked as if Birnam Wood would not come to Southmoreland Park, toil and trouble would not bubble in view of the Nelson-Atkins’ shuttlecocks, and cries of “Out, damned spot!” would not sound across midtown Kansas City.

But thanks to a tempest of support from the community, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival was able to raise needed funds, and this year’s production of Macbeth will run from June 14 through July 3. It was just over a month ago that the Festival’s organizers announced they would need to raise $100,000 to keep the 19th season afloat. Luckily, the ducats came rolling in, and the show will go on.

That’s good news for the Kansas City Public Library, too. Not only are we fans of the Festival – which always brings veteran actors to top-notch productions of the Bard’s works – we’re also proud to host an annual Shakespeare lecture series that’s free and open to the community. In its 11th year, the series brings extra context and insight to the plays staged in the heart of our city.

Andrei Codrescu has always been interested in the ways stories are told. As a poet, essayist, novelist, and founder of the avant-garde journal Exquisite Corpse – not to mention his hilarious NPR commentaries – Codrescu has made a name for himself as a master at both creating and exploding narrative forms.

On Thursday, June 2, 2011, Codrescu visits the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library to discuss his newest novel, a smart, dizzingly adventurous, and hysterical retelling of the Arabian Nights – Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments. (Please RSVP if you wish to attend this free event.)

Some people look at big cities and see dirty streets, crowded subway cars, and muggers lurking around every falafel truck. But Harvard economist and author Edward Glaeser sees the American metropolis as more innovative, greener, and healthier than the leafy suburb.

Glaeser’s new book, Triumph of the City : How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier shatters many myths about American cities.

For one thing, the human density of big cities drives innovation and competition – the more people, the more possibility for change and growth, Glaeser argues.

“Cities play to mankind’s greatest asset, which is being able to learn from each other face to face,” Glaeser recently said on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Glaeser finds that far from being plagued by crime and filth, people in big cities are healthier and wealthier than other Americans, and they use 40 percent less energy than their suburban counterparts.

By changing the way Americans eat out, Fred Harvey changed the way we eat, period. As founder of America’s first interstate restaurant chain, the English-born entrepreneur filled bellies all along the westward-expanding Atchinson, Topeka & Sante Fe railroad at the turn of the 20th century.

Not only were Harvey House meals of consistent quality and value, they were served up by the refined, morally upright, and danged cute Harvey Girls  –  quite possibly the Platonic ideal of what it means to be a waitress. They even inspired a “gay and lusty” 1946 Judy Garland musical. (Watch the trailer.)

Harvey also had a major impact on Kansas City. In 1914, Union Station opened and became a nerve center for the American railroad. With the Fred Harvey company headquarters located in the building, alongside a 525-seater Harvey House, Harvey's enterprise was feeding the growth of Kansas City and the West. (Harvey died in 1901, but his name lived on through the company and its owner, his son Ford Harvey, who helped shape KC in his own right.)

In today's 24/7 news cycle, it's impossible to imagine President Obama boarding a yacht to undergo major surgery, disappearing for two days, and spending weeks recovering on a fishing trip with no explanation beyond a case of rheumatism, a toothache, and a much-needed vacation.

But in the summer of 1893, that's exactly what Grover Cleveland did. And even then, he barely got away with it.

In his new book, The President Is a Sick Man, Matthew Algeo, author of Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure, recounts the story of how Cleveland pulled the wool over the public's eyes regarding his debilitating health problems – and then vilified the reporter who had the gall to tell the real story.

Algeo gives a free presentation about his new book – the first full account of this relatively forgotten but culturally revealing period in our nation's history – on Tuesday, May 3, 2011, at the Central Library, at 6:30 p.m. (RSVP to attend.)

Joe Louis and Natie Brown

When Joe Louis fought in Kansas City on February 17, 1937, Boss Tom Pendergast was in power, jazz was jumping downtown, and black athletes were decades from being accepted as equal to their white counterparts. In fact, some historians believe that Louis' only local fight, against Jewish-American boxer Natie Brown at Municipal Auditorium, was the first interracial sporting event in Missouri history.

Art is subjective. Yet when viewing a work, most of us are quick to formulate opinions that are either positive or negative, for or against. But how often do we stop ourselves in the midst of our own judgment and take time to consider the artist’s own point of view? How often do we try to climb inside their head and ask, “What is it they are trying to say with this piece?”

In advance of bestselling author Jasper Fforde’s appearance at the Plaza Branch on March 17, 2011, the Kansas City Public Library is giving away two first-edition hardback copies of his new book, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, the latest installment in the Thursday Next series. The Library will give away both books via a random drawing facilitated by Twitter.

In the years before the Civil War, Kansas was a battleground. As Free State forces clashed with pro-slavery marauders from Missouri, a 40-something mother of four from Vermont waged a war of her own. As “Bleeding Kansas” raged around her, Clarina Howard Nichols came into her own as a champion of equal rights for women and blacks.

A new biography tells the story of this often-overlooked reformer and her contributions to social justice in 19th century America.

In Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood, Marilyn S. Blackwell and Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel provide an accessible, deeply researched, and often thrilling study of Nichols’ life and achievements.

For one of its authors, the book represents a homecoming long in the making.

Kenneth Armitage

Kenneth Armitage knows his marmots. Though he spent much of his 40-year academic career at the University of Kansas studying the yellow-bellied marmot or “rockchuck,” he’s enough of an expert on the burrowing beasts that he’s featured in the bonus materials of the 15th Anniversary Special Edition DVD of the hit ‘90s comedy Groundhog Day.

KC Unbound recently caught up with Dr. Armitage, professor emeritus of behavioral ecology at KU, to get the lowdown on marmots, including how they are dealing with climate change, and whether or not their shadows can tell us anything about the length of winter.

This year, it seems that Punxsutawney Phil has predicted an early Spring -- he did not see his shadow upon emerging from his den in Gobbler's Knob, PA. Were he in KC, however, he'd probably be unable to exit his burrow because of all the snow. And, unfortunately, due to the inclement weather, Dr. Armitage's lecture at the Central Library on Wednesday, February 2, at 6:30 p.m. has been canceled.

Read on to learn more about marmot biology and the history of Groundhog Day.

KC Unbound: What’s the difference between a marmot and a groundhog?

The recent release of Mark Twain’s uncensored autobiography has set the literary world ablaze. And that excitement was in the air a few weeks ago at the Central Library, when one of the editors of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Robert H. Hirst, came to give a presentation before a crowd of nearly 450 “Twainiacs.”

How Life Imitates Chess book jacket

For Garry Kasparov, life really does imitate chess. The top-ranked chess player in the world for nearly 22 years, Kasparov retired from international competition in 2005 and took on an even more challenging career. He entered Russian politics and became the leader of the opposition movement, playing democracy’s white against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s black.

Here at the Kansas City Public Library, we like to think big. Brobdignagian books line our parking garage, baffling bloggers worldwide. Our collection is huge, numbering over a million titles. And as the 2010-11 Script-in-Hand season of free public plays shows, we like our drama big, too.

What’s big about Script-in-Hand? The abilities of the actors and directors from the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre – which has produced this program for all of its’ five-year existence – are tremendous. And the plays they deliver each year are towering works of literature.

But most of all, in this 2010-11 season, it’s the ideas that are biggest.

Polsinelli-Shughart office

In his preamble to the Fall 2010 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly Lewis Lapham writes, “Pericles conceived of ancient Athens as the expression of man’s humanity to man.” Though this notion seems a far shot from today’s Midwestern cityscapes, a recent battle over an old building in the heart of Kansas City shows that people feel a definite, human connection to our city’s defining places.

Juxtaposing texts from history and literature over the centuries with essays by contemporary thinkers, the Fall LQ (most of which is readable for free online) explores the evolution of the city in civilization – and our relationship to it over time. From expressions of the greatness of gods and kings in ancient times to today’s sprawling conduits of commerce, cities have shown the aspirations and limitations of society – a constant push and pull between higher ideals and economic expediency.

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