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Staff Picks: Books

How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball writes the kind of novels that, while amazing and among my favorites, are often difficult to recommend to a lot of people. Not because they are of sub-par literary quality in any way, but because they are often experimental, hypnotic and seem intent on confounding the reader. Recommending a few of his titles to friends and family has made it clear that Ball really isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea”. But that may  change with his latest effort How to Set a Fire and Why. The book is a fair bit more accessible than his previous titles, but it is the narrative voice that Ball uses to give life to the books narrator Lucia that makes it a read that I feel more people would and should enjoy. Lucia is a high school aged, sharp-tongued straight talker very much in the tradition of Holden Caulfield. But Lucia is also a wannabe arsonist and potentially a real danger to society, yet her sense of humor and intelligence makes her immediately likable. Plus she spells out and follows a strict ethical code of her own design. Her circumstances are beyond tragic, but the boldness of Lucia’s wit and the power of her individuality ultimately assure you that despite the sad truth of her life, Lucia will survive. You may not go on to read more of Jesse Ball’s work, and that’s ok, but once you get to know Lucia you won't soon forget her and you won't put this book down.

Henna House

A few of my fellow KPL librarians decided to try a Reading Challenge this year just for the fun of it.  There are a ton of challenges out there but this is the one we’ve been using.   It’s been a great experience since it’s given us a chance to discover good books we otherwise would have avoided.  I was nervous about “The First Book You See in a Bookstore” challenge but the book I first laid eyes on has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.  Nomi Eve’s Henna House may have been on that bookstore’s bargain cart, but it was a hidden gem.  

The book follows the life of young Adela as she grows up in 1920s Yemen.  Her family is Jewish and her father’s health is failing.  If she is orphaned, she risks being taken by the Confiscator who will place her with a Muslim family, forcing her to give up her religion and her family ties.  Her parents desperately try to arrange a marriage for her, which would save her from the Confiscator’s grip, but misfortune keeps following poor Adela.  Despite her situation looking hopeless, she finds solace and acceptance in her aunt’s house where she learns the tradition of henna and develops a close friendship with her cousin, Hani.

Reading this book was a delight since it was easy to get swept away in Adela’s storytelling.  It’s as if she is taking her life story and turning it into a beautiful henna that weaves in all her joys and sorrow.  You also learn a lot about the traditions and history of the Yemenite Jewish population pre-World War II; it’s eye opening to see how their lives were affected even before the war began.  I’m grateful that my 2016 Reading Challenge allowed me to stumble across a great book that I otherwise may not have noticed.  This is why I’m challenging you- the next time you stop into KPL and pick up your copy of Henna House, also check out the first book you see in the library.  You may be surprised at what you find!

A Different Kind of Graphic Novel

Let’s talk about Here, a fascinating book by Richard McGuire. Classified as a graphic novel, it’s less of a comic book, and more of a subject study as the entire book never leaves the living room of McGuire’s childhood home. The book travels backward and forward in time, exposing ordinary events that happened in that very spot, almost like players wandering on and off the stage.

Things get interesting however, when little windows start to appear on the page. A woman in 1957 stops to try and remember why she walked into the room while a cat from the year 1999 saunters through. A baseball that crashes through the window in 1983 has no impact on the man trying to tie his shoe in 1991. The room begins to get crowded as people from the distant past, present, and future all begin to appear in these trans-temporal windows. As if something about the ordinary-seeming space has unraveled the space time continuum.

It’s a fun, and thought provoking book. After reading it, you can’t help but think about the people who stood where you are years before, and who will be here years after you’re gone.

The Bees

In her novel, The Bees, Laline Paull tells the story of the not-so-secret life of an actual bee, in the vein of the rabbits of Watership Down.

Based on the science of bee biology and behavior, the book looks at one bee as an individual--and so, daringly, does the character herself. Flora 717 is a worker bee but is physically different from others--a likely death sentence in the hive’s totalitarian society. But through a chance encounter, one of the “priestesses” who run the hive spares her, and Flora is afforded opportunities not normally available to her “kin” (all Floras are lowly sanitation workers). 

It isn’t clear whether her curiosity is another innate difference or is brought about her experiences, but one after another, Flora is allowed to perform many of the different roles of the hive. Her strength and intelligence contribute to her success, and she comes to the hive’s rescue in various crises.

Flora is not universally appreciated, however. The Sage priestesses in particular see her as a threat to their dominance, and she becomes a fugitive when she breaks the hive’s cardinal commandment through an involuntary action (based on a true natural phenomenon that occurs in one in 10,000 worker bees, according to an interview with Paull).

As in Watership Down, animals (and even plants) are personified without being entirely anthropomorphized. The Bees is a mix of reality and imagination: bees express human thoughts and emotions but communicate primarily through scent and vibration; they not only serve the queen but consider her fertility sacred and worship her in ceremonies of "devotion"; and the male drones are lesser characters in the operation of the hive but also provide comic relief through their self-important and bawdy conduct.

The Bees is a font of fascinating information about these social insects and also calls attention to the environmental threats to their survival, but it is also just a good read. Flora’s story is one that would be compelling regardless of her species, and it certainly made me think about bees differently!

Say Goodbye to Dietland

Plum Kettle is fat, and she doesn’t want to be. She spends her days in solitude, dreaming of the day she’ll be thin after her scheduled bariatric surgery and buying clothes for her future thin self—that’s when she’ll be happy and finally start living the life she wants. But there would be no story here if that’s what happened to Plum; instead, an encounter with a mysterious woman leads Plum to discovering an underground faction of fierce feminists who challenge how Plum sees herself and the whole wide world. The book jacket describes Dietland as “part coming-of-age story, part revenge fantasy,” is which absolutely a great description of this darkly funny, feminist novel.

Margaret Atwood

In anticipation of seeing her later this fall in Ann Arbor, I'm trying to catch up on at least part of Margaret Atwood's body of work, starting with The Handmaid's Tale, originally published in 1998. Considered by some as dystopian or fantasy fiction, I had dismissed it before now as something I wouldn't like. Full confession: I was wrong. Between the characterizations, the vivid descriptions of the futuristic setting, and her command of the language (oh my the language), I'm hooked! While I look forward to reading other earlier Atwood titles, I also look forward to seeing her new graphic novel(!), Angel Catbird and her upcoming re-telling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Hag-Seed (coming in October).

The Excellent Lombards

This coming-of-age novel by Jane Hamilton centers on Mary Frances “Frankie” Lombard and her family’s sprawling apple orchard. Her idyllic life on the farm begins to fray in the complexities of family dynamics, love, and loss as the future of the farm becomes increasingly unclear.

Hamilton writes almost a love letter to a threatened way of life. One reviewer says it “takes us back to being a child and believing in one thing wholeheartedly.”

There is much to discuss and appreciate in this novel. It would be a good book group choice.

I Am Princess X

In fifth grade May and Libby created Princess X together. For years after the two continued the story of the princess in the purple dress and red chucks who wields a katana. That is, until Libby and her mom drive off a bridge on a rainy night. Three years later, lonely May discovers a sticker of Princess X on a shop window. No one could have created it, except for Libby. It seems impossible, but May wonders if her friend might still be alive. 
This clever murder mystery trails May on her quest to find out what exactly happened the night that Libby and her mom died, and to find Libby if she did indeed survive. Fans of webcomics, suspense, and puzzles will love this book! I sure did!

While you wait for The Underground Railroad...

Colson Whitehead’s newest novel, The Underground Railroad, was slated to be published next month. But yesterday, in a surprise announcement, Oprah Winfrey named the novel her latest book club selection and the book is actually available for purchase now.

KPL has the book on-order and you can place a hold using the online catalog. While you wait for your copy to become available, check out some of the following titles; some are new, some older, and some are previous Oprah picks:

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Grace by Natashia Deon
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
Copper Sun by Sharon Draper
The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile
The Coming by Daniel Black
Beloved by Toni Morrison


A John Berry Meachum Story

This fictional children’s story was inspired by a real event. In Missouri in 1847 a law was passed that prohibited the education of Blacks, slaves or free. This law was passed by the General Assembly of the State of Missouri and it stated that: “No person shall keep a school for the instructions of negroes or mulattoes, reading or writing in this state.”

A man named John Berry Meachum lived from 1789-1854. He had been born a slave and worked to earn enough money to buy his freedom. In 1826 he became a minister of the first African American Baptist Church in Missouri. Although, educating blacks was against the law it was very important to Meachem. Being a very resourceful and creative person he worked to find ways to defy the unjust law that stated black people could not be educated within the state. He built a steamboat and used it in the middle of the Mississippi River as a school for Blacks.

That’s where the idea for this great story, Steamboat School by Deborah Hopkinson, came from.