Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
The arresting photo on the cover of this book caught my eye and I was quickly drawn into the quirky world of George Ohs, who called himself The Mad Potter.
Born in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1871, George Ohs was a largely self-taught potter, making items like no one had ever seen before. It wasn’t until long after his death that the art world came to appreciate what he called his “mud babies.”
The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius tells his fascinating story and is illustrated with intriguing historic photographs.
The Mad Potter
Once in a while a book comes along and completely destroys everything you thought you knew about everything. Andrew Smith's latest book for older teens, Grasshopper Jungle, is exactly that book. Set in desolate small-town Iowa, Grasshopper Jungle is sixteen-year-old Austin's first-hand account of both the end of the world and also his teenage sexual confusion, although not exactly in that order. Where in most teenage giant monster stories the giant monsters function as a metaphor for teen angst, in Grasshopper Jungle these tropes are completely reversed to amazing effect. As Freud might say, sometimes a giant maneating mutant insect is just a giant maneating mutant insect. Grasshopper Jungle is totally dark, funny, crass, creepy, weird and awesome. It's definitely not for those with aversions to copious amounts of sex, violence, swearing, or GIANT MANEATING UNSTOPPABLE BUGS but aside from all that, Grasshopper Jungle is seriously amazing writing. My favorite book of the year so far, and one that's going to be really hard to top.
The book Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala is the London survivor's account of the Indian Ocean Tsunami that struck the day after Christmas while her family was vacationing in her native Sri Lanka in 2004. Sonali lost her husband, both precious young sons, both parents, and good friend in an instant as they were swept away, trying to escape the monstrous wave that suddenly engulfed their coastal hotel on an otherwise calm, sunny morning. Sonali, swept inland and back out again by the wave, eventually clung to a branch and survived. The book starts off with these horrifying events, then plunges into the agony and despair that is the new reality for Sonali. Numbing alcohol, wanting to die, guilt, blame, anger. As she tells the story of years leading up to the devastation, she memorializes the love of of her life, Steve, and his mouth-watering cooking, 8 year-old Vik who played cricket, 5 year-old Malli who put on shows with puppets and costumes, and long holidays with her parents Aachchi and Seeya at Sonali's childhood home in Colombo. This book is a sad, sad book...but it is also a beautiful love story.
Sometimes I have this craving – I have to find a book. You may see me wandering from aisle to aisle here in the library, eyes fixed on the shelves, looking for that volume that will somehow take hold of me and say “Here I am – the book you’ve been looking for your whole life.” I’m seized by these feelings often: I remember one week at university, I had just finished finals and papers for the semester, and I needed a book. Not just any book. A book that would suck me in and change me. A book that would overwhelm me and leave me in a deep breathing, inchoate sort of awe. One of the first of these books to take me over and leave me a new person was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was very saddened to hear about this author’s death on April 17; so, in honor of his work, and to mourn the fact that there will be no more stories from his pen, here are some reflections on some of my favorite things he has written, which in many ways have spoiled me as a reader for anything less challenging or delightful.
I first encountered Marquez when I purchased his collection of novellas and short stories called Leaf Storm at a bargain bookstore in upstate New York. The story from this volume that grabbed me was “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” It was such a simple story, and the people in the village seemed real because the narrative made them so commonplace, so rooted to their unremarkable, hardworking and physically hemmed-in existence. The narrative made me feel sympathy for them, and then eventually to find myself among their number. The arrival of this corpse – not so very surprising; for a people who catch their living in the sea, drowning is all too common, really – changes this village and the villagers. The size of this man. As the villagers go through the familiar rituals associated with preparing the body for the funeral, they discover his differences. He is enormous. He is not from their village, or another one nearby. He is like nobody and nothing they have seen before. In the face of the mystery of this man, they have to make up some kind of life for him, a way to understand him. They create an identity for him: they give him a name, Esteban, and a history of sorts. The work to lay him to rest in his death becomes an imaginative creation of a life that somehow matches the greatness his dead body suggests to the villagers. When they hold the funeral, he is mourned as one of their own, and they have fallen in love with him. They are now his. This was a love story like one I had never read before, and I was sucked in. I was in love with Esteban, too, and shivered in the bittersweet pleasure of the story as it was told, and the sense of loss it created.
And then, I can’t remember exactly when or why, I found myself reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Talk about shivering in bittersweet pleasure. The thought of sitting down and opening the book even now means I must have the leisure of time. I want balmy weather, so I can open my window to feel the breeze move around me. I want light refreshments. I must be prepared for company. The characters who stride across these pages are driven: the desire for children, for revolution, for freedom, for gold, for each other; the unending hunger surges through their blood and family and tugs you along with them. They are never fully satisfied. Sometimes it comes close, but that just sharpens the coming up short. This family and this village are small and insular, but they are the whole world. Everything is shocking, yet you shake your head and enlarge your heart to take it all in, because you love these people, and you know them, because you have come to recognize the patterns repeating themselves over and over again in the house and the family. Somehow, the unspoken desires, the unknowns, the unfinished and unsatisfied elements from your life find a place here in Macondo, too, and you can sigh over them while you marvel at the events of the hundred years.
And then there is his short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” that I read and discussed with literature students for a couple of years. It gave time to discuss the genre Marquez is best known for, magic realism, as well as other rhetorical devices like antithesis, allegory, and allusion. It’s a charming fairy tale, from one perspective, seemingly best suited for children with the appearance of angels and disobedient daughters turned into spiders. But it’s also a story about the hard work and disappointments that characterize so much of adult life, and that blind adults to the magic and inexplicable all around them.
The library has three pages in the catalogue of books written by Marquez, some in the original Spanish; most of them are English translations. Try One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera, both in the fiction section. Maybe you will be like me and fall in love with the people engendered in Marquez’s brain. Maybe you will be fascinated by the real history and political tragedy that gets woven into every narrative. Maybe you will long for the sultry and soporific Caribbean landscapes that somehow spread across your own mind as you enter his world. Read something, then come talk about it with me.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
When I started reading this book I got really excited. I thought that I had a lot in common with Pearl Cleage. The similarities stopped quickly and although the timing of our first children was close there was little to compare after that. Like me she quit working but she was still very connected. How could she not be when she wrote speeches for the city of Atlanta’s first black mayor and fraternized with some very important people? She was married to Michael Lomax, who became the president of The United Negro Fund. In Things I should have told my daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs, Pearl gives her readers a very candid look into her life back in the 70s and 80s. Some of her bear-it-all details were tough for me to imagine because where I had become Pollyannaish she was making major life changes and her world was broadening while mine was narrowing. I don’t envy her and her world, I just marvel at it. She had 2 affairs with married men and still ended up happy!
Pearl says it was all worth it, even the messy parts.
Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs
In today's world, when work and home life seem to intertwine and
many of us are tethered to technology that keeps us constantly
available, time is our most precious commodity. In
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has theTime, Brigid Schulte takes a look at the U.S.'s perpetual time
crunch and what makes us all in such a hurry. Schulte offers
extensive research regarding time, work, and play in the U.S. and
the results are fascinating: it turns out time is gendered in our
society. Schulte argues that the myth of the "ideal worker"
(an employee who puts in hours upon hours of face time in at work
and will drop everything at a moment's notice for their employer)
is detrimental to the health and happiness of individuals and does
nothing at all to support families. Women, particularly
mothers, assumed to be the care givers in families, are the ones
who suffer the most; they make less money, are less likely to rise
to management levels within companies, and feel relentless pressure
to be the perfect parent. Schulte offers lots of data to back
up her argument, and she suggests changes (including paid
maternity/paternity leave, paid vacation, flexible work hours,
more egalitarian household duties, etc.) that she thinks would
offer better support to families and in turn generate happy,
healthy, and productive workers.
I found this book extremely interesting to read despite a topic
that, handled differently, could have easily been boring; it made
me look at structures in our society that are taken for granted and
realize that, yes, we can have more time, better gender equality,
and still be a productive society. I do wish more attention
was paid to how low income families and people of color are
impacted by "the overwhelm" as the author describes it-although
Schulte occasionally addresses both income and race, there's plenty
more that could have been discussed along those lines.
Despite that flaw, I came away from this book with the feeling that
the topic of time--both work and leisure--is incredibly important to
discuss and that a cultural shift in how we think about time could
have a huge, positive impact on our society.
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time
Vacationing on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula’s scenic west coast shoreline is a wonderful choice. More than one hundred years ago Buster Keaton’s family and their vaudeville team vacationed in Bluffton, near Muskegon. Matt Phelan wrote and illustrated a graphic novel titled: Bluffton: My Summers with Buster.
The story, told in remarkable drawings, is about a boy named Henry Harrison who lives in Muskegon year round. Henry hears about the vaudevillians and is captivated by the performers and their animals! He and the young Buster Keaton form a summer friendship and they hang out and play baseball with other kids. When summer ends, kids go back to school, but not for Buster! Buster travels around doing vaudeville acts, then returns to Bluffton the next summer. Bluffton offers a glimpse into the life of one of the world’s most well-known silent screen actors and the few summers he lived on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Go back in time and watch Buster Keaton’s black and white slapstick silent films on KPL’s Hoopla site. It’s accessible directly from the KPL catalog, just enter Buster Keaton in the search field.
Bluffton: My Summers with Buster
A book that has as its subject the continent of North America is a bit unusual. Generally one would find separate works for the individual countries of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the various Caribbean island nations, but this book has them all. Lots of facts are included, such as: 1) Some desert plants, like the cereus, bloom at night instead of during the day to attract pollinators like bats that come out at night when the desert is cooler, 2) Ninety percent of the world's tornadoes occur in North America, although tornadoes have occurred on every continent except Antarctica, and 3) With temperatures falling to fifty below, the pines of northern Canada become stunted but still form the largest forests of the continent. Containing striking photographs, this companion to the Discovery Channel series includes narrative on North America's wildlife, weather, plants, and geography. This is an impressive book.
North America : a world in one continent
A search for 'Lance Armstrong' in the KPL catalog reveals many books written about the subject. There are the books that helped create the mythical Armstrong story, which goes something like - raised by a tough single mother, displayed phenomenal athletic ability at a young age, near-terminal cancer diagnosis cuts short a promising cycling career, survives cancer, a changed man - he comes back to become the world’s greatest cyclist and wins the Tour de France an utterly amazing 7 times in a row, retires from cycling to lead a philanthropic foundation that reaches millions of cancer survivors around the planet. (see: Tour de Lance or 23 Days in July) Now there are the post-federal investigation/Oprah confession books that reveal Armstrong to be a sophisticated drug cheat, a total bully, a bald-faced liar, and detail his recent plummet from hero to pariah. (see: Wheelman and The Armstrong Lie) Having closely followed professional cycling throughout the era that Lance Armstrong won 7 straight Tour de France titles; I can understand his current perspective which is basically: if everyone was cheating, then nobody was cheating. But the thing that ultimately led to his spectacular fall from grace, and what makes Juliet Macur’s new book about Armstrong, Cycle of Lies: the fall of Lance Armstrong, so captivating, is the fact that the single-minded competitiveness that allowed him to beat cancer and win bike races also fueled the ferocity of his denials and the personal attacks on those that dared to defy him. Macur, unlike most journalists outside Oprah herself, was allowed access to Armstrong and his inner circle, and uses that access to produce a nuanced portrait of how the Lance Armstrong myth formed and grew and how it ultimately collapsed upon itself so catastrophically.
Cycle of Lies
Some Bugswritten by Angela DiTerlizzi is a new favorite picture book! The rhyming text and the large illustrations make it perfect for storytime and it's a hit with every crowd I read it to, from preschool to first grade! Bugs do all kinds of amazing things and this book shows off those qualities. Full of action words like "buzz, build, make, take", we learn something new about bugs every time we read it. And at the end there is a full spread of bugs with their official names perfect for poring over together after reading this wonderful book! Eeach time we notice something new!