Readers Scene

If you had to pick one writer alive today whose autobiography could become a bestseller 100 years after his or her death, who would you choose? Rowling? Roth? Franzen, perhaps? It’s hard to fathom which of today’s literary celebrities might still be relevant in 2110.

When it comes to native Missourian Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, his power to get people talking is as potent as it was during his lifetime. This year, on the centenary of his death in 1910, a complete and unexpurgated version of Twain’s autobiography has the literary world abuzz.

Resting comfortably in the Amazon top 10 as it awaits its November 15 release, volume one of the University of California Press’ three-volume, 500,000-word Autobiography of Mark Twain begins the fulfillment of Twain’s own decree that his memoirs not be published until 100 years after his death. The book is the work of a team of editors at UC-Berkeley, where the Mark Twain Papers are held at the Bancroft Library.

Soldier says goodbye to his wife in the Buenavista station (1913). Agustín Víctor Casasola

In 1908, American journalist John Kenneth Turner, posing as a wealthy investor, infiltrated hemp plantations in the Yucatán peninsula. His goal: to expose the “chattel slavery” abundant Mexico under the oppressive regime of Porfirio Díaz.

“Slavery in Mexico! Yes, I found it,” he wrote in his 1910 book Barbarous Mexico. A bestseller at the time, Turner’s exposé of the so-called “Porfirian Peace” provided context for understanding the revolution that eventually drove Díaz out of the country and ushered in years of upheaval and reform.

With Barbarous Mexico, he addressed an American audience that viewed its “Sister Republic” as perhaps a bit poorer and less technologically advanced than the U.S. but not much different in terms of liberty and justice. And while Mexico did have democratic written laws, Turner found the government to be hopelessly corrupt:

What would you do if you had to build a nation? Start Googling? Download an app? When John Adams strode onto the world stage by joining the Continental Congress as a representative from Massachusetts, he had no iPhone or MacBook Air. Contemporary European books (often in their original languages) and Greek and Latin classics were his RSS and HTML.

Unlike his more privileged colleague Thomas Jefferson, Adams was the son of an uneducated farmer. His father had to sell ten acres of land to pay his son’s tuition at Harvard. Mindpower, not money, was Adams’ currency in the social climate of colonial America, and devouring the knowledge contained in books was Adam’s ticket to self-betterment.

A more-than-avid reader, Adams built a library of thousands of volumes – a search engine in paper, ink, and binding. The knowledge contained in Adams' vast library not only fueled his passionately principled mind but shaped the creation of our country -- and set the course of a family.

A brand-new exhibit and a special event happening this week at the Kansas City Public Library celebrate Adams’ bibliophilic legacy.

The world may have never known Doonesbury if it weren’t for Jim Andrews and John McMeel. The founders of Andrews McMeel Universal (then called Universal Press Syndicate) were headquartered in a rented house in Leawood when they discovered a young cartoonist named Garry Trudeau.

Forty years, 14,000 strips, and one Pulitzer later, Trudeau and AMU are still going strong.

On October 25, Trudeau visits the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library to present his brand-new book, 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. We caught up with John McMeel and CEO Hugh Andrews of AMU to discuss the iconic Doonesbury from a publisher’s perspective.

What’s so special about Kansas City that has kept AMU rooted here all these decades?

In 1936, Mao Tse-tung was not dead, as his enemies would have China believe. Indeed, despite frequent reports of his demise, the 43-year-old communist leader was alive and well and giving his first-ever interviews to a foreign correspondent: Kansas City-born journalist Edgar Snow.

Snow had been living in China since 1928. Before leaving for his 13-year stay in China, Snow studied at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and briefly pursued advertising in New York. By 1936, he had written two books on China, the non-fiction travelogue Far Eastern Front and the short story collection Living China.

When Snow met with Chairman Mao at the communist capital of Pao An in far northwest China, the West knew very little about this son of a peasant who would fight a war with Japan, defeat Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, and later be responsible for social and economic upheavals such as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

In a July 6, 1971, speech before media executives at a Holiday Inn in Kansas City, Missouri, President Richard M. Nixon hinted at a future shift in foreign policy that would climax in his unprecedented visit to China. Trouble was, no one at the Holiday Inn fully fathomed what “Tricky Dick” was up to.

Though he warned that America’s economic power was waning and forecasted the need to “take the first steps toward ending the isolation of Mainland China from the world community,” Nixon – who had been a crafty poker player while serving in the Navy --  wasn’t showing many cards. (The full text of his address is available here.)

In Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, his compelling, rowdy and incisive analysis of Nixon’s rise and fall in the turbulent ‘60s and early ‘70s, Rick Perlstein conjectures that the significance of Nixon’s Holiday Inn speech wasn’t recognized until years later. Perlstein writes:

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.

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.

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.”

The Great Typo Hunt: Deck and Herson come to the Plaza Branch Wednesday, September 8.

Misspellings on marquees, apostrophe abuse in ads – Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson have seen it all. The Great Typo Hunt documents their road trip with friends ridding America of grammatical errors. In honor of their presentation at the Plaza Branch (click here for details), we conducted a typo hunt of our own around Kansas City.

Over the past week and a half, we at the Kansas City Public Library have been leading a campaign to scour the local landscape for typos. Unlike Deck and Herson’s Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL), whose 2008 journey led to the correction of hundreds of public transgressions against the English language nationwide, our humble mission sought only to capture local violations. And we enlisted your help doing it.

Rosemary Herbert discusses her New Omnibus of Crime August 26 at the Plaza Branch.

From Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot to CSI’s Catherine Willows, crime writing has changed a lot in the past 75 years. A New Omnibus of Crime shows how crime fiction has developed from a genteel genre populated by old ladies solving crimes over tea to a scientific discipline full of cold-blooded killers.

A New Omnibus of Crime was compiled by Tony Hillerman and Rosemary Herbert as a followup to Dorothy Sayers’s 1929 Omnibus of Crime. Just as the original Omnibus sought to represent the developments in the genre, the New Omnibus contains stories that exemplify trends in crime writing that have arisen since its predecessor was published.

Page One of the Heilongjiang Daily, April 6, 1968 - Photograph © Li Zhensheng (Contact Press Images)

Imagine President Obama jumping into the Potomac for a swim, in the process signaling a violent youth movement that overturned state and local governments. Hard to believe? Something much like that happened in 1966 when Mao Zedong launched China's Cultural Revolution.

Now, we’re not comparing President Obama to Chairman Mao in terms of political agendas. But imagine, for a minute, watching the leader of the world’s most populous country take a dip in a river, don a white bathrobe and wave happily to the press. Meanwhile, he’s spawning a revolution that will shut down schools and slow industry to crawl as his Red Guard ransacks homes, schools and libraries, persecutes capitalists and religious leaders, and generally makes a mess of the whole country. Kind of an odd picture, isn’t it?

In a two-hour display of vigor, on July 16, 1966, the 72-year-old Mao Zedong swam the Yangtze River. He was reprising a swim he had made ten years earlier, which he’d immortalized in a poem. As the clip below shows, the 1966 swim not only set off a national swimming craze, it also heralded the beginning of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For ten years – until Mao’s death in 1976 – the Cultural Revolution sent China into a tailspin.

Thin Blue Smoke by Doug Worgul

Kansas City is often referred to as the Barbecue Capital of the World – an assertion its citizens take very seriously. Doug Worgul’s new novel, Thin Blue Smoke, offers a fictionalized take on our town’s famous barbecue scene.

Worgul will present his novel at the Kansas City Public Library on Wednesday, August 11 at 6:30 p.m. Join us for some free burnt ends from Oklahoma Joe’s at the reception starting at 6 p.m., and then stay to hear about Worgul’s barbecue-based story of epic redemption.

Worgul’s novel features a variety of characters whose lives intersect at their local barbecue restaurant, called Smoke Meat by its regulars. Central to the plot are LaVerne Williams, owner of Smoke Meat and ex-ballplayer for the Kansas City Athletics (before the team moved to Oakland), and Ferguson Glen, an Episcopal priest and alcoholic who finds his own salvation through the glory of barbecue. A host of other characters round out the cast, including a local blues legend, a big-hearted developer, and a young man adopted into the Williams family through his work in the restaurant.

Moment of Psycho - Thomson

Voyeurism is an acceptable trait in a filmmaker. But sadism? In his new book, The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, celebrated critic David Thomson shows how Alfred Hitchcock damaged his audiences even more than his actresses.

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