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Staff Picks: Books

Graphic Memoirs

As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. I love graphic novels –stories told using both pictures and words—because you can glean so much of the emotion and action of the story from the artwork. I recently read two poignant memoirs, which explore the final years of the lives of beloved parents.

In Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my Mother, and Me, the beauty is in the great detail that Sarah Leavitt shares with the reader. Some of the details are frustrating and heartbreaking to read and see, as her mother gradually loses more and more of her capacity to thrive; still, the little daily challenges and special moments shared by family are what make caregiving for an ailing loved one so rewarding.

Joyce Farmer illustrates the final four years of her father and stepmother, Lars and Rachel, in Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir. Her writing and drawing style are much different than Leavitt’s, but again, you feel the full emotion of her experience supporting them in their final years.

I was struck by the role of cats in each of these books. Note p. 192 of Special Exits, where the beloved Siamese cat, Ching, is loving on her “Daddy” so much that he can’t breathe. In five cartoon boxes, author Farmer paints love and affection between cat and human, while deftly illustrating the frailty of her dying father. In Tangles, (p. 65-66) Mom adores Lucy the cat, who  actually wants nothing to do with her. Even though Leavitt admits to feeling some jealousy of her mother’s adoration of the cat, she makes little books with cards and photos about Lucy, which her mom then carries around with her. The picture of the cat hiding under the covers on Mom and Dad’s bed is simple, yet priceless.

We have quite a few other memoirs in our graphic novel collection.


Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir

“Bob the Cat” – not the only Cool Pet Story around

Teresa’s blog about A Streetcat named Bob got me yearning for stories about pets who help others heal. She did such a good job advertising Bob, that I couldn’t check it out quickly – too many holds! If you are eagerly awaiting your place in the cue for Bob, consider these titles in the meanwhile:

Homer’s Odyssey – A truly inspiring 3-lb. blind cat by the name of – you guessed it-- Homer, compelled his owner, Gwen Cooper, to develop a new career, in order to properly support her felines. He survived six moves with her and saved her from an intruder in her NYC apt. Homer has spunk, character, pizazz. I’d love to meet him! The chapters about living through 9-1-1 and its aftermath, one block away from the twin towers, were especially harrowing and moving. Somehow, Cooper’s account brought home to me the true terror pet owners experienced during the ordeal in a way I’d never envisioned before.

A Dog Named Boo - Coincidentally, author Lisa Edwards experienced 9-1-1 in New York with her pets, too. Edwards is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, who turned her sensitivity about her own abuse into wisdom when training her special-needs dog, Boo. She faced life challenges--like the early death of her beloved brother from Lou Gehrig’s disease-- and passed tests to become a professional dog trainer and behavioral consultant, in spite of her learning disability, figuring if Chuck could train to become a CPA after his diagnosis, she could manage difficult tests to obtain her career. Boo had a rare physical condition, which made training slow and arduous, but which gave him a unique patience and compassion for working as a therapy dog. His progress inspired Edwards to excel, despite physical limitations.

Edwards’ description of the healing encounters of therapy dogs with family members of deceased 9-1-1 victims and the emergency rescue workers are very moving.

Tired of reading about dogs and cats? Look instead for:

Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence – and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, by Irene M. Pepperberg

Wesley the Owl: the Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and his Girl, by Stacey O’Brien. (Another co-worker, Rebecca, turned me on to this book. I blogged about it forever ago, and I still think it’s a remarkable story.)


A Dog Named Boo

Far From the Tree

It took me almost a whole year to read through Andrew Solomon’s deeply moving book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. One reason is because it is so long (over 700 pages) and the other is because it was a little bit popular among Kalamazoo residents so I would have it for three weeks and then return it to fill a hold and get it back several weeks later. I don’t think this was a bad way to experience this book. It is so dense and at times emotionally draining, it was good to move slowly and take some time off.

Through interviews with parents, Solomon explores the lives of families coping with children with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities; and with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, and who are transgender. The summary in our catalog describes the book as, “elegantly reported by a spectacularly original thinker, Far from the Tree explores themes of generosity, acceptance, and tolerance--all rooted in the insight that love can transcend every prejudice. This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human.”

Do not be put off by the size of the book. If you just can’t get yourself to take on a project that big, the chapters stand mostly alone so you could pick and choose what you wanted to read. Also, just reading the introduction is highly satisfying, as you encounter more compelling and fascinating ideas than most whole books.

In the chapter on transgender children, Solomon mentions a documentary titled Prodigal Sons that was made by one of the subjects of that chapter. I was delighted to see that the library owned a copy and I highly recommend it.


Far From the Tree 

One Eagle Scout’s Story

In 2011, Zach Wahls’ speech to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee was posted online and went viral, where it gleaned over 17 million hits on YouTube. For those who’d like to hear more from this promising young activist, you can read his book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family.

Wahls, an Eagle Scout, was raised -- in a home steeped in family values, discussing morals at the dinner table—by two moms. In his book, Wahls breaks down the Boy Scout motto, law, oath and slogan, giving concrete examples of how his family exemplified values in each of those codes and what he learned from the Boy Scouts about living out those values. He also gives a moving account of his mother, Terry’s, struggle with MS, and how her illness and triumphs over her condition impacted the whole family. In general, we see a family sharing love and struggles, as all families do. This family’s parents ultimately earned the legal right to marry in their home state, partly due to Zach Wahls’ inspiring speech on the Iowa legislative floor.

The library has other materials by, and/or for, children of gay or lesbian parents, and their parents. If you don’t find what you are looking for, please ask!



My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family

It’s All About Me-ow

First of all, I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our wonderful KPL patrons a very happy and healthy 2013! And to start this New Year off on the right note, I would like to correct a glaring omission that I had committed in the preceding year; amends for which will allow me to once again indulge in one of my absolutely, positively most favorite topics of all...cats!

To be specific, I regrettably forgot to mention in my personal “Best of 2012 List,” a book by well known cat lover and owner Hudson Talbott titled, It’s All About Me-ow (special emphasis on the Me).

Intended for early elementary kids on up (yes, even through adulthood), this particularly clever tome delves into the question of who is truly in control of any household where felines may be in residence. In this case, an older and wiser cat named Buddy welcomes a trio of wide-eyed, innocent kittens into his abode; one that he just happens to share with some naïve, yet well-intentioned humans. Soon after their arrival, Buddy takes it upon himself to train the newcomers as to the workings of their new world. In Buddy’s judicious and experienced opinion, success at being a housecat is all predicated upon the very well known and established fact that humans’ only goal in life is to want to make their feline companions happy. But in order to achieve this lofty aspiration, the cats themselves must take control of the situation from the very beginning, thereby aiding their human housemates in finding the exact, correct paths to feline approved pleasure. The accompanying illustrations to the various hilarious scenarios that Buddy utilizes in educating his young charges are very revealing, and are also evidence of the fact that the author/illustrator really does know his cats intimately!

In my own household, there are three very special and beloved cat occupants; Ollie, the eldest, as well as Graham and Lionel, two littermates my husband and I adopted some eighteen months ago. Upon the latter duo’s appearance, we were quite amazed by Ollie, who at first shunned them, but then took it upon himself to show the little guys just what it takes to be an upstanding cat and thereby fit into our family unit. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if part of their training consisted of something akin to the gospel as advocated by Buddy in this book, since all three have us trained very well! In fact, there isn’t one (reasonable) thing that we would not do to make them happy, from impromptu chin scratches, to sharing a cuddle, to daily group play time. We are crazy about these guys. And that’s because they have taught us that to please ourselves, we must first please them. Love has never been so unselfish!


It’s All About Me-ow

Reading Goals

Does anyone else make reading goals at the beginning of the year? I find it so interesting how different readers approach reading. Everyone does it a little bit differently but the goals are often the same: reading for pleasure, reading to learn, reading to grow, reading to escape for a bit! It's always at the end of the year when I am reflecting on the year that has passed and preparing for the new year that I'm thinking about personal reading goals. More reading is always on my goal list.

Last year, I challenged myself to read 100 books and keep track of them on Goodreads. I love having a record of what I've read! In 2013, I'll try to read 100 books again, but I think I'll choose 12 personal growth books or lifelong learning that I've been wanting to read but don't make time for. They are going on a list and I'm plowing through them, one month at a time. Knowledge is power, friends! 

Number 1 on that list: Help, Thanks, Wow: the three essential prayers by Anne Lamott. If you know me, you probably saw that coming! I'm also looking forward to Daring Greatly: how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead by Brene Brown. Have you seen her TED talk on vulnerability? So inspiring!

What books are you looking forward to making time for in 2013? If you need some best of lists, KPL's staff lists are great. Our staff has diverse tastes but share a love for reading, listening and viewing. I love that the lists are linked to our catalog so I can search for the location or place holds as I peruse the favorites! I also love this list by NPR, this list and this list by the New York Times, and this list of notable fiction by the Washington Post. 

Happy new year to all! I wish you many hours of enjoyable reading for fun, reading for growth, and reading just because you can!


Reading Goals





Heart of Mulder, Mind of Scully

As I write this, it is 12/21/12 and I am currently not experiencing any sort of Mayan-prophesied apocalypse.  Experts will tell you that the Mayans prophesied no such thing, but - as humans are wont to do - there were folks who built an urban legend out of scraps of misinformation and turned it into a whole big deal.  And thanks to all that doomsday hoopla, civilization was cursed with one particularly crappy John Cusack movie.  Now I don't personally know anyone who will confess to believing that the world was going to end today, but I do know a lot of people who believe many other things that I find difficult to swallow.  From outlandish conspiracy theories to the existence of ghosts and little green men to ancient mythologies, I'm constantly surprised by what people are willing to accept without any substantiation.

Now don't get me wrong:  I love stories of the supernatural and extraterrestrial - The X-Files is my all-time favorite television show.  And like that program's protagonist, Fox Mulder, I want to believe.  I'd give anything to have a ghostly experience or some psychic communication with loved ones from beyond the grave.  But I have to admit to myself, that deep down, I'm much more like Mulder's partner Dana Scully, the skeptic, whose job it was to scrutinize all of Mulder's investigations and look for fact-based scientific evidence to explain their otherwise otherworldly encounters.  I want to believe, but I don't - I can't, in good conscience, accept something outside the parameters of what we as humans have proven as fact.

I'm perfectly comfortable, however, that people believe things that I do not, but I have a hard time when people demonstrate the inability to process new information; acceptance of unproven things should not exclude acceptance of proven things.  I also dislike when selfish people prey upon the personal beliefs of others, as with so-called "psychics" who use the practice of cold reading to take your money and tell you that your dearly departed loved one says that it's okay for you to move on.  These kinds of behaviors make me very angry; I am a humanist and I believe that we should leave this world better than when we found it.  And when I'm angry, I often seek answers that help me understand why things are the way they are.  This summer I found solace in two books by fellow skeptic Michael Shermer:  Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time and The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.  In these books, Shermer discusses how the evolution of our brains helped us survive by becoming good at recognizing significant patterns in life - yet we're not particularly good at distinguishing between connections that actually exist and connections that have no significance.  He also discusses how we tend to choose our beliefs and then actively select which bits of information we support them with, and which bits we actively ignore.  These are fascinating reads and I suggest them to anyone whether you're a skeptic or not.

In the end, life is full of people who disagree with us, and we need to work hard to figure out a way to thrive among them.  The world would be a boring place if we all believed the same things, but that doesn't mean we can't argue in constructive and productive ways, and it certainly doesn't mean that we shouldn't, like Mulder and Scully, always be in search of the Truth. 


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

The Chamber in the Sky

At the beginning of The Chamber in the Sky, the fourth and final book in the Norembugan quartet, Brian and Gregory are lucky to be alive. The Thusser horde have already colonized the minds of the inhabitants of the Vermont subdivision where it all began after The Game of Sunken Places. Brian and Gregory, along with their blue-blooded elfin companion Gwynyfer have to find a travelling chamber that contains the off switch to the centuries-long game if they hope to make it back to Vermont. M.T. Anderson is a fine storyteller and funny. What a unique blend of laugh out loud moments along with genuinely thrilling plot twists and turns. The four-part series will probably be most enjoyed by 10 and ups.


The Chamber in the Sky