Author: Russell Shorto
Title: Amsterdam : a history of the world’s most liberal city
Narrator: Russell Shorto
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2013
Shorto’s history of the Dutch city of Amsterdam is built on a principle that the city defines liberalism in both senses of the word. There’s economic Liberalism – the principle of laissez-faire in free market capitalism, and there’s social liberalism – which values communal action and individual liberty. While these two interpretations of liberalism are at odds with one another in much of the world, Amsterdam is a place where individual enterprise and community spirit work together surprisingly well. This may have its origins in the creation of the city itself, literally reclaimed from the water by dint of communal work, and yet the new land became property of individuals at a time when most land was owned by royalty or the church. Shorto describes how the notable Dutch tolerance is based on the idea of gedogen, turning a blind eye rather than strictly enforcing the law.
The history of Amsterdam is broad and Shorto both compresses a lot of detail and tends to overstate Amsterdam’s significance, but appropriate to Amsterdam’s characteristic of establishing individual identity, he focuses historical periods through the eyes of specific historical Amsterdam personages. These include:
- Rembrandt van Rijn – the portrait artist who explored human interior life
- Baruch Spinoza – rational philosopher who foresaw modernism
- Frieda Menco – a contemporary of Anne Frank who also went into hiding in Amsterdam and then to concentration camps. Shorto refers to extensive interviews with Menco
- Robert Jasper Grootveld – anarchist organizer of the Provo movement who helped make the 60s counter-culture a permanent facet of Amsterdam
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali – a feminist activist known for her outspoken opposition to Islam
I found this an engaging history of this fascinating city.
Recommended books: Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City by Geert Mak and Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner
Author: Megan Stine
Title: Who Is Michelle Obama?
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 
My song picked out this children’s biography to read at bedtime from the Who was?/Who is? series and we both noted that despite her prominence, neither of us knew much about Michelle Obama. So it was interesting to learn her life story, one of hard work and great accomplishments, and be reminded of just how quickly the Obamas went from ordinary Americans to the White House (and Michelle likely has a lot more life to live so there will be more to her story). The book included short features about some other First Ladies from America’s past dispersed through the text. I thought the book tended to overemphasize Michelle Obama’s beauty and fashion sense at the expense of her talents and accomplishments, but otherwise was a good introduction to her life.
Author: Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro (Artist.), Robert Wilson (Artist.), Taki Soma (Artist.)
Title: Bitch Planet. Volume 1 Extraordinary Machine
Publication Info: Berkeley : Image Comics, 2015.
Writer Phillip Sandifer stated that this comic series is “most unapologetically social justice oriented book on the stands” so I thought I’d give it a try. Bitch Planet is set in a future dystopia where noncompliant women are sent to a prison on another planet. “Noncompliance” in this society is basically anything that doesn’t please men, so women who are angry, opinionated, independent, unattractive or overweight and attempt to control their sexual selves are the ones incarcerated. In a lot of ways it builds on a tradition of feminist dystopia from The Stepford Wives to The Handmaid’s Tale. The comic draws on the aesthetic of 1970s prison exploitation films and it is unsettling in its graphic depiction of violence. It takes me a while to connect with characters in comics, but one who stands out is Penny. Shortly after I finished reading this volume this comic was published in Unshelved which is a good introduction to the story.