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Staff Picks: Books

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt

Gary Schmidt, two-time Newbery Honor-winning author and National Book Award Finalist, offers an emotional and heartbreaking account of love and loss in his latest teen book Orbiting Jupiter.

After being incarcerated at a juvenile facility, Joseph is released into the care of a loving foster family. Though released into a new future, Joseph cannot separate himself from his past: a daughter named Jupiter. The product of a teenage pregnancy, Jupiter was relocated during Joseph's incarceration, and no one will tell him where she is. Joseph will sacrifice whatever he must to finally meet his daughter.

With themes of teenage pregnancy and juvenile incarceration, this book seems as if it would be hard to read. To the contrary, Schmidt's portrayal of Joseph, his foster-brother Jack, and the world in which they live give the reader an intense emotional connection that is somehow heartwarming and heartbreaking.

Future Shock

Naomi Alderman’s fantastic feminist allegory, The Power, begins with teenage girls realizing they can conduct electricity through their hands and how that can come in “handy.” Research into the phenomenon uncovers that all newborn female babies have the physical trait that makes it possible to conduct electricity and teenage girls learn that they can bring the ability to life in older women.

Women led revolutions start to take place around the world and women move into positions of power in government, the criminal underworld, and as spiritual leaders. But possibly the most satisfying moments are when women are able to fight back against their attackers. Great companion to the #MeToo movement. 

The New York Times Book Review named Alderman’s meditation on power one of the 10 best books of 2017.

The final words

“You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail.” Those arresting lines begin the story Triumph Over The Grave, one of the five stories included in Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Johnson, who passed away last May after battling liver cancer, gave grace and significance to the desperate and damaged characters who inhabited his stories - particularly in his masterpiece story collection, Jesus’ Son. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which sadly his publisher says will be the final words from Denis Johnson, solidifies Johnson’s place as a true master of his craft and one of the greatest literary voices of his generation.

Future Home of the Living God

Louise Erdrich's latest novel, Future Home of the Living God, is a suspenseful and topical story, covering themes including reproductive rights, the treatment of Native Americans, and religious intolerance.

Cedar Songmaker is a young, pregnant woman eagerly anticipating motherhood while at the same time in fear for her own survival and that of her baby. The book takes the form of a journal she is writing to her unborn child, recounting the events leading up to its birth, in case she does not live to tell the tale in person. The reason? Many biological organisms are no longer developing as expected. Scientists aren't sure exactly what is happening—evolution is described as running backward or sideways, and the government's response is increasingly autocratic.

Cedar seeks out her Native American birth mother in order to find out about any genetic diseases in her family, and in the process she is forced to come to terms with the truth of her own origins and her adoptive white parents. Cedar is a spirited protagonist and her personal situation, as well as the environmental and societal changes surrounding it, cause her to question who and what she can trust and to take drastic measures to keep her freedom.

What is a bardo?

I was introduced to George Saunders on a list of “smart summer reads” that I found at Cody’s books in Berkeley, California and have loved his books ever since. However, I didn’t make it far the first time I picked up his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I was turned off by the citations below the statements from every character and I didn’t really know what he was doing. I had not read the jacket cover or anything about the book. 

Then I saw Lincoln in the Bardo on several of my library colleagues’ best of 2017 lists and my wife enjoyed it so I gave it another try. 

Bardo is a term that comes from Tibetan Buddhism signifying the state of existence in between death and rebirth, but in the book it seems closer to the idea of purgatory. Saunders was inspired to write the novel after reading about Abraham Lincoln making several visits to the crypt to hold the body of his young son Willie who passed away at the age of 11. He started to imagine what that depth of grief must have been like, especially as the casualties of the Civil War started to escalate. 

Saunders has no lack of imagination. I recommend taking this sometimes sweet, sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying and sometimes overwhelmingly sad journey into the bardo.

Papillon- One Remarkable Cat

Papillon, the very fluffy kitty who has the amazing ability to float like a cloud in the sky, is at it again in A.N. Kang's sequel Papillon Goes To The Vet. This time Papillon must make an unexpected trip to the kitty doctor after accidentally swallowing a yarn toy during a robust playtime session. The toy gets stuck somewhere in his belly, making him feel sick with a case of the hiccups to boot. His owner, Miss Tilly, transports her kitty, via bike, as he forlornly sits in the front basket

The vet sees the obstruction on an x-ray and Papillon is ordered to spend the evening at the clinic, where he feels sad, scared and lonely. His cries for help only make the hiccups worse, but the silver lining is that after one particularly ferocious hiccup, the fluffy toy pops out of his mouth.

The other cat patients present at the clinic are quite impressed with Papillon's post recovery antics, and come to see him as the very talented and special cat that he truly is. Next day this remarkable floating cat returns home with a fresher spring in his step and a mouth that will be determinedly closed when around any yarn toys that happen to be lurking about!

This book is chockfull of extremely expressive illustrations that are sure to please both young and old cat lovers alike. As fate would have it, author Kang herself has an amazing fluffy black and white cat named Papillon as well!

New Favorite Author

I loved Elizabeth Strout’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kittredge, but for some reason did not go on to read any of her other books until just recently. While packing to go on a short trip, I wondered out loud if I had enough books for all the reading time I would have in airports, on planes, and in hotel rooms. My wife said that I could take one that she had just started, Anything Is Possible.

Once again, I was drawn in by her beautiful prose that illuminates all the corners of her characters’ hearts and minds. Do you ever read books and just get the feeling that you are settling into a comfortable chair?

I didn’t know that Anything Is Possible echoes back to an earlier Strout novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, so I had to read that one next. Now I’m listening to The Burgess Boys and have the Olive Kittredge tv miniseries checked out.

Elizabeth Strout has moved into my favorite authors category. Settle into one of her novels and enjoy how she weaves together the stories of her character’s flawed lives, often making you upset with and then sympathetic towards them.

Dear Martin

I devoured this book. Earlier this year I was struck by PIECING ME TOGETHER by Renee Watson, and THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas. DEAR MARTIN by Nic Stone was right up there with them. Justyce McAllister is a good kid, an honor student, and on his way to Yale. One night he's trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend get home, only to be the one that lands in handcuffs (which is putting it mildly). After his encounter with police profiling, he starts to really notice the injustices and inequalities in his life from all directions. Justyce decides to write Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. letters to express his frustrations and study his writing to try and understand what MLK would do in those situations. What I loved about this book that I didn't get out of the other two mentioned, was how Justyce asked questions not just about the white people he encountered but about his own standing and where he came from - how does he fit in? He says in one of his letter, "It's like I'm trying to climb a mountain, but I've got one fool trying to shove me down so I won't be on his level, and another fool tugging at my leg, trying to pull me to the ground he refuses to leave." Nic Stone does an amazing job capturing nuance and complexity in this book. We'll be reading this for our January Pizza & Pages program at Central. Teens can register starting December 19!

If the Creek don't Rise

This novel is a first for Leah Weiss. You’d never know it. Her words flow like syrup warmed in the sun. I felt like I was there on the mountain, hiding on a tree limb, spying on each character and watching the next person come round the bend.

There are some mean people in this story. Weiss doesn’t just let us hate them, though, and leave it at that. Oh no, some of them get a whole chapter to tell their part of the story and their experience of life on the mountain. By the time they’re through, we see the world through their eyes and get why they’re so hateful. There are no simple answers and no clear-cut ‘who’s right’ and ‘who’s wrong’ to this novel. If you’re looking for that, find a different book. But I suggest you decide to just take it all in and be carried along by Weiss’ lyrical story telling and her very human characters.

I put this title on my Best of 2017 list. Watch for all our staff year-end ‘Best of’ suggestions online soon. In the meanwhile, come down to Central and check out the Best of 2017 physical display for some great reading ideas.

Little Monster Gets the Last Laugh

Little Monster wants to be in a scary story, but finds the dark forest, spooky house, and creepy witch too scary.  He doesn't want to be scared.  He wants to do the scaring.  However, that doesn't work out as planned.  The comical back and forth between a narrator and Little Monster makes Sean Taylor's I Want to Be in a Scary Story a great read aloud.