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Staff Picks: Books

Let's Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout!

Available as an eBook and a print format book, Let's Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn it Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood, is a beautifully illustrated new collection that is chock full of great songs, proverbs, rhymes, and stories. I’m excited about this new title because it provides lots of great activities for caregivers to talk, read, sing, write, and play with their young children while providing a personalized historical perspective. Brian Pinkney’s swirling illustrations represent the constant movement that makes up the lives of children. Patricia McKissack, often with her husband Frederick L. McKissack, has authored many books including biographies, picture books, novels for older readers, and fascinating history. This wonderful new collection, with something for readers or read-tos of all ages, is a very welcome addition!


Passing

 It’s Black History Month! A time to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans, but also a great time to examine some of the social issues and complexities of race in America.  For all of the insistence upon inherent difference between races, it is actually just a social construct based on appearance with a few cultural differences thrown in for good measure. Or as Maya Angelou put it in her poem Human Family, “we are more alike, my friends/ than we are unalike.” 

In the 1920’s when Black Americans were treated poorly and granted way less opportunities for success, many fair-skinned Black Americans decided to cut ties with their family and friends to  try and live out the American Dream the best way they knew how—by pretending to be White. Americans were all too aware of this, and as a result, there were many films and novels focused on the subject of passing.

My absolute favorite novel from this time period is Passing by Nella Larsen. Published in 1929, during the Harlem Renaissance, the story follows two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, childhood friends who meet later as adults. Irene is married, and living in Harlem right in the hub of the Black social circle, while Clare, a wealthy socialite who married a racist White man, is passing for White.

Passing explores themes of deception, jealousy, loyalty and betrayal. It’s a tale of fashionable frenemies, scandalous parties, and a crazy twist ending I’d love to talk to you about if you get a chance to read it. I love it to pieces and hope you will too. 

 


Faithful

I’m an Alice Hoffman fan. I’ve read just about everything she has written, some I like more than others. Faithful is one of my favorites of hers.

This is a story of tragedy and sorrow. Shelby and Helene are best friends in high school until an accident changes both of their lives.

Grief, guilt, recovery, friendship – it is all here but I didn’t find it as depressing as it sounds from this description. I agree with the reviewer who wrote…. “there is unique magic that Hoffman casts in all of her novels; seriously, this is a novel for anyone who has faith.”

This is a beautiful novel about surviving, forgiving ourselves, and connecting with others.


Miss Jane

From Miss Jane by Brad Watson:

“She was born into that time and place, in the farmland cut from the pine and broadleaf woods of east-central Mississippi, 1915, when there was no possibility of doing anything to alleviate her condition, no medical procedure to correct it. It was something to be accepted, grim-faced, as they accepted crop failure, debt, poverty, the frequent deaths of infants and small children from fevers and other maladies.”

The novel Miss Jane is a beautifully-written character study of a girl born alone in every way—an odd duck in a family worn down by hardship, alienated from society due to the unique nature of her disability and in no small part to simple geography. She is alone save for the paternal kindness of a country doctor. But there is something about Jane Chisolm, something deep inside, that allows her to connect with nature and build a meaningful life in solitary. I can’t say enough about this book; Brad Watson writes with empathy for his heroine, an empathy that extends out to all of us experiencing the human condition. Using beautiful descriptions of nature to foster tone and atmosphere in the novel, Watson creates a striking sensory experience that propels Miss Jane to the forefront of great contemporary fiction.


Nat Turner and Slave Resistance

Filmmaker Nate Parker made history at this year's Sundance Film Festival when he sold his film, The Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid at the festival. The film went on to win the festival's U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. When asked in an interview why he chose to use the same title for his film as the 1915 silent film often credited as a catalyst for the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Parker responded, "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."

When news of this film at Sundance first emerged many months ago, some friends and I were discussing our eager anticipation of the film, which opens in theaters today. Those conversations led me to think more about slave revolts and how these episodes in American history are often minimized, or completely ignored. In fact, well into the mid-20th century some white scholars of American history still claimed that Africans passively accepted enslavement. We know this isn't the case, but it's not a topic covered very thoroughly by most history courses before university-level. Wanting to learn more, I began reading more works on slave resistance.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
Historian Gerald Horne argues the Revolutionary War was a tactic used by the founding fathers to prevent the abolition of slavery in the colonies, challenging the traditional narrative of our country's founding. Highly recommended.

American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen
This book details the 1811 revolt in what is present-day Louisiana. Hundreds of slaves from several different sugar cane plantations marched together in an attempt to overtake New Orleans. It is thought the Haitian Revolution, ending in 1804, partly inspired this uprising, which was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the execution of 95 slaves.

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
This award-winning graphic novel details Turner's life, beginning with his mother's enslavement and ending with his execution for his role in the revolt.

Ardency: a Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This is a poetic retelling of the Amistad revolt by poet and scholar Kevin Young, who was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for poetry and was named director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this past August.


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.


These Girls Pack a Punch!

 Do you need more dinosaurs, time travelers, and girl power in your life? If so, I have two fantastic graphic novels for you.  First up, is Paper Girls, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn, the writer named by Wired Magazine as " the greatest comic book visionary of the last five years." This suspenseful mystery starts with a slow burn as four paper delivery girls head out to cover their route the morning after Halloween in 1988.  After the girls accidentally set off a strange machine, the story kicks off at break-neck speed, and soon the girls are facing off against dinosaurs, laser-blasting knights, and sub-human creatures that might just be from the future. It’s intense, fast-paced, wicked fun, and the series is only just beginning. 

 

Also, make sure to check out the Lumberjanes series by Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson. Lumberjanes follows five “hardcore lady types” spending the summer at a crazy camp surrounded by bizarre supernatural mysteries. The girls fight werewolves, solve riddles, and avoid the ever-watchful eye of their group counselor in this manic, off-beat, fantastic read. This series has been out for a while, but you can catch up on Hoopla digital.

Both of these series are a great mash-up of sci-fi, fantasy, action, and mystery with fabulous artwork. So what are you waiting for? 


The Summer Before the War

My book group’s choice for April is The Summer Before the War, the new book from Helen Simonson, author of the popular Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Although we haven’t yet met to discuss it, I’m confident my reading friends will have enjoyed it and we’ll have a good conversation.

The story is set in a small town in England just before World War I. It begins with the arrival of a new teacher – Beatrice Nash – younger and prettier than expected. The war first touches the town when some Belgian refugees arrive, then as the town’s young men go off to war with a sense of adventure.

This novel evolves – it begins as a pleasant small town, with the English class snobbery, and becomes an account of war and its aftermath. Some of the reviewers call it a “novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal.”


National Book Critics Circle Award Winners 2015

Last month the National Book Critics Circle Award winners for 2015 were announced. "The NBCC annually bestows its awards in six categories, honoring the best books published in the past year in the United States."

Here are the 2015 winners in each category:

Poetry
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

Criticism
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Autobiography
Negroland by Margo Jefferson

Biography
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

Nonfiction
Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones

Fiction
The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The John Leonard Prize
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing
Carlos Lozada

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award
Wendell Berry

You can see a recording of the ceremony here.


Learn How to Fold All That Joy

Marie Kondo started a throw-everything-away organizing trend with her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book that advocates for getting rid of anything in your home that doesn’t spark joy. Some people seem to think her method, called KonMari, is extreme or even a little saccharine, but I think it makes perfect sense: who wouldn’t want their home to be filled with things they love and devoid of things that annoy them? That’s why I’m reading her follow-up book, aptly titled Spark Joy. Spark Joy goes into more detail regarding the storing of items; how to fold clothes, display beloved items, and organize other accoutrements. It also addresses a number of questions Marie Kondo has received since publishing her first book, such as getting through the untidy stages of tidying and keeping things that don’t spark joy but are necessary (she gives a screwdriver as an example). I recommend starting with the first book, but if you need more information or inspiration than that, or you just like cute illustrations, I definitely recommend following up with Spark Joy.