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important book recommendations from my bibliotherapist!

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Many of you have been asking when we’ll have another session with my bibliotherapist, Rachel Stevenson, especially with the devastating events of the past few weeks.

Books can go a long way in helping to make sense of the world, to learn from history and to find ways to cope. As this beautiful image, above — which comes from a Banksy tweet — shows, books keep our brain healthy.

So, without further ado, here’s my latest session with the amazing Rachel. (Note: I asked her so many questions, I’m going to break this up into a few different posts because she sent back seven pages of answers, which are so fascinating, I want to share all of it with you. Here’s Part 2 and Part 3.)

Let’s talk about the monuments. How can we learn more about them and the people they celebrate?

Away Down SouthThere are a lot of books about the South and some of them love the Confederacy and some of them try to take the South away from its roots and merge it with modern day America. I think Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity by James Cobb does a good job of keeping to the importance of the identity of the South. I don’t think there is a book about the Southern identity that would please everyone, but if you want to understand America better I’m going to recommend a book I’ve recommended before: American Nations by Colin Woodward. It describes how America is actually 11 different nations because of who settled where. An important read if you want to understand different areas of the U.S. and how they view their cultural heritage.

I asked one of my Southern friends for the book that most explains the Southern mentality and her response surprised me at first but, as it worked its way about my head, actually makes sense. It’s the most stolen book from libraries and the most readily available book even in motel rooms: The Bible. She also recommends Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird.

The TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale freaked everyone out – as it should. I couldn’t even watch it, having read the book and feeling like it was no longer science fiction. Any other book-based movies/series we should watch to jar us out of complacency?

I know sometimes everything comes back to Good Ol’ Willie, but he wrote same damn good stuff. I think the Ian McKlellen version of Richard III and Shakespeare’s play are really timely right now. And yes, I know that I am pissing off an entire group of people, my dear friend Valerie LaMont included as well as the entire Sharon Kay Penman Fan Club on Facebook who think Richard III is misunderstood, but that movie version of Richard III is chilling. No other word can describe it.

With the Arts Committee having resigned, what can we do to learn how to express ourselves creatively? Any how-to books about creativity? Or any coffee table books filled with gorgeous pictures or words to remind us of the beauty in the world?

Cultural WomenLet’s start with the basics and by that I mean an adult coloring book. Personally I think the one we need here is Cultural Women: A Coloring Book of 23 Women in Their Traditional Dress Around the World by Kristen Carlson. What better way to celebrate diversity and be creative than to love the different cultures around the world?

When I watched the play, Proof, I realized that math is a beautiful language and after dating a mathematician I realized how much great art is really about math. So, to be creative and support the arts and STEM, read Mathematics and Art: A Cultural History by Lynn Gamwell. This book is hard to read because it’s really heavy and big. It’s one of those coffee table books that should actually be read.

And let’s look at something pretty from one of my favorite artists and learn a little background as well: this new book, Sargent’s Women: Four Lives Behind the Canvas by Donna Lucey. It deals with how these women struggled and how Sargent captured them for generations. It also shows that, even though Sargent painted almost a century ago, the women he portrayed had to fight for equality. We women today can understand that struggle because we’re still fighting for it too.

Any cookbooks with a good sheetcake recipe?

Cake A Slice of HistoryAmerican Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer the Stories and Recipes Behind More Than 125 Of Our Best Loved Cakes by Anne Byrn. This book really tells the love story between America and cake. The best part is the older recipes have been updated for modern kitchens. You can bake your way through American cake history.

I’m also going to recommend Cake: A Slice of History by Alysa Levene.  I’m going to outright steal a passage from the book to show you why this is so fun: “It was the year 878 A.D., and a man claims sanctuary in a small village home in Wessex.  To the surprise of the villager, the man is not a passing vagabond but Alfred, King of the Anglo-Saxons.  The village homemaker is happy to hide him from the marauding Danes, provided he keeps an eye on the cake she has baking in the oven.  Preoccupied with how to re-take his kingdom, Alfred lets the cakes burn, and the incident passed in to folklore forever.”

Who doesn’t want to investigate cakelore? I’m pretty sure years from now, when someone else writes a history of cake, Tina Fey will definitely be mentioned. How do I know this? Because I learned it from Playboy. If you didn’t get the skit read this: http://www.playboy.com/articles/tina-fey-cake And amazingly enough this is one article where you can read the comments and not feel sick to your stomach. Okay so maybe the man who says he has an MFA in cake (and by cake I think he means satire, but maybe he really did spend two years doing an MFA in cake — I’ve heard weirder things) might make you a little queasy but, overall, the comments are thoughtful and deep.

Thanks, Rachel. I’m going to spend the afternoon in a comfy chair with a couple of these books and a sheetcake. Readers, stay tuned for Part 2, in which Rachel provides great resources about White Supremacy and authoritarianism. If you missed her Reading List for a New Year (a.k.a. The Resistance), here’s Part 1 and Part 2. And, if you want to go back to a happier time before the election, here’s a great list of book recommendations from her that has nothing to do with politics. 


  1. Cake. Yes, a sheetcake sounds good. I could dive right in after watching the news.

  2. I love food history. Food history about cake, I am in!

  3. I’m going to have to stay away from the sheet cake but love Rachel’s book suggestions. Tina ate it so well, anyway. Away Down South sounds intriguing.

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