Category Archives: biography

Al Franken: Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

Al Franken, Giant of the SenateImagine a political outsider with a significant media profile winning a narrow and bitterly contested election. When the outsider was sworn in he pivoted from the utter comedian and buffoon his detractors thought he was to a serious legislator bent on serving his constituents the best he could, and got to work learning the customs and procedures of representative government. Pouring over tomes of policy briefs, working across the aisle…

You could call that a pleasant fantasy, or you call it story of Senator Franken, and it’s the story– among others– that he details in Al Franken Giant of the Senate. Let me stop right now and say this: DON’T READ THIS BOOK. Listen to it on audiobook. Franken is a gifted humorist– one of the original and longest-enduring writers and actors on Saturday Night Live– and he knows how to intone and land a joke he wrote. His impersonations of Washingtonians like Mitch McConnell or Bob Corker or Ted Cruise are hilarious.

Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall and I drove across Canada on our from Eugene, Oregon to Salisbury, MD, and listened to a number of audiobooks. Franken’s book is funny and informative– he wants to take pains to explain wonky political machinery not to lambaste it or bore you, but to help you understand how Washington works (or doesn’t). He is an unabashed liberal who continues to skewer lies and the lying liars that tell them, but he also makes a pragmatic pitch for bipartisan muddling through. He is clearly going to run for president, and this book is a great start to that effort.

Kaitlyn wants me to add that it is worth listening to this whole book just to hear the chapter “Sophistry,” in which Al Franken details his feelings about Ted Cruise.

Availability: COSMOS (Print & Audio), USMAI (Print only)
Review Submitted by:  Shane D. Hall
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: Published in 2017

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven

Krakauer is usually more of an adventure writer. The story of his ascent of Mt. Everest is riveting. This is more of an interwoven tale of the evolution of the Mormon religion and flash forwards to a splinter faction that practices polygamy in Utah, Idaho and British Columbia and how one of its members conspires to kill a woman and her child because of a perceived slight against their sect. There are a lot of footnotes showing that Krakauer did a lot of research going into this.

Availability:  COSMOS
Review Submitted by: J. Tyler Bell
Rating: Recommended with reservations

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, SpyLiar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.

This work of historical nonfiction reveals the courageous feats of four female Civil War spies, all from a variety of social backgrounds, and the lengths to which they go in amassing top-secret information for their respective factions. Working for the Confederate cause are Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a prominent Washington socialite who uses her charms to woo high enemy officials into divulging Union secrets, and the headstrong Belle Boyd, a teenager desperate to earn a name for herself in this tempestuous era. Spying for the Union are Emma Edmunds, a Canadian woman who disguises as a man to enlist in the Union army as a courier, and wealthy abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, who organizes a Union spy ring and manages to conceal runaway prisoners-of-war in her Richmond mansion right under the noses of rebel detectives.

What I appreciate most about Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is the determination with which the four strong women protagonists carry out their espionage despite the tremendous risks. Though they may not see eye to eye regarding secession and slavery, all share a fervent dedication to their mission and refuse to crumble under the danger of discovery by the enemy. These four women help shape the outcomes of various Civil War battles with the intelligence they glean, and after reading about their unique legacies I cannot help but feel a great sense of awe.

Availability: USMAI, COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Xuejie Kimball
Rating:  Highly Recommended
Challenge: a book with a number in the title


A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead.

A Train in Winter

A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France is about the 200 women who worked for the French Resistance during the Holocaust and were taken to concentration camps. The author interviewed the women who were still alive in 2009 and they told her the stories of the other people. It is also contextualized with how the greater politics of the time influenced their lives before and after their capture.

The major and really only problem with this book is that it is written in a hive-mind way where the story of the woman being told changes almost at random and it cuts back to the same person at random as well. This is problematic because it becomes hard to remember who is who, especially when several of the women have similar names.

However, overall it is a well researched book and it is apparent that the author has a lot of respect for the women involved. It also captures the horror and heartbreak of the Holocaust and I cried several times. Also there were a few women who were much more identifiable so you can get into their story instead of just reading it for education. Finally there is the horror at the end of the book where several of the women who survived were severely depressed and had tremendous survivor’s guilt, showing that even though people survive tragedy it doesn’t mean that they can get over it. The book also talks about why people collaborated with the Nazis and turned on their neighbors, citing personal grievances, monetary gain and a fear of communism. This is important because from a modern perspective it is hard to imagine why someone would willingly help them and it helps contextualize the danger that the people were in. Namely that a neighbor who doesn’t like you could turn you in and there was nothing you could do about it.

Overall it is a great book to read if you want to learn about human tragedy, the Nazi occupation of France or the Holocaust in general.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating:  Highly Recommended

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and Mother’s Quest by Beth Macy

TruevineThe circus, at the height of its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, provided an attractive future for many rural adolescents. Independence and a chance to travel were some of the reasons why young people ran away to join the “big top.” For others, however, the circus was a prison, not a liberator.

In 1899, a circus promoter kidnapped young George and Willie Muse, who both had albinism, from a field near their home in Truevine, a small African-American tobacco farming community outside of Roanoke, Virginia. For the following decades, the brothers performed as sideshow attractions, often portrayed as savages, cannibals, or aliens. Circus managers treated George and Willie cruelly, forbidding them from contacting their family and refusing to pay them. The boys were told that their mother was dead, when in reality she was desperately searching for them.

In her book, Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, Jane Macy explores the story of Willie and George Muse and their mother’s struggle to find the brothers and secure for them a better future. In the 1980s, as a reporter for the Roanoke Times, Macy began hearing rumors about the Muse brothers – “the best story in town.” Interested, Macy befriended the brother’s niece and caregiver, Nancy Saunders. It took nearly two decades for Macy to gain Saunders’ trust. She ultimately began her research and interviews only after Willie’s death in 2001.

Truevine is not just a story of the circus. Although George and Willie’s tale was both fascinating and horrifying, their mother Harriet’s quest for justice was just as compelling. After tracking down her sons, she confronted their circus managers and eventually sued Ringling Brothers for mistreatment and back pay in the 1920s. Her persistence ensured that George and Willie were able to return to the circus on their own terms, with fair wages. I was impressed with Harriet Muse’s bravery in confronting the famous Ringling Brothers during the height of Jim Crow. Truevine is a fascinating story of the South during this period. I highly recommend it.

Availability: COSMOS
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby-Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended