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Staff Picks: Books

The Verses we Would Rather Forget

This book is not anti-religion by any means, and it makes great pains to show that Islam stacks up very well against Christianity on the issue of violence, but the book does want to have a serious and detailed conversation about the violent passages that exist in our religious texts, in all major world religions (except Buddhism…I don’t think spends much time on that).

First, what violent verses are we talking about? Second, what are the historical atrocities that have been committed, using interpretations of those very verses as justification? Third, how to we keep that from happening in the future? This is a story about how religion has evolved, and is still evolved, and how interpretation matters, and how learning from the past saves us from future blunders.

For some reason I lost interest in the topic, and only got half-way through the book, but I did enjoy it.

Black People Behind Bars: How Did We Get Here?

Check your optimism at the door folks; this is going to be a bumpy ride. I give my whole-hearted recommendation for this book, and I did read the entire thing, with one caveat: it’s quite academic, sometimes dry, many times repetitive, and takes a lot of concentration and time and patience to get through. In other words, it’s not the best writing ever.

Mark Twain once said: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

This is not engaging and entertaining writing, and the author takes great pains to take her opinions and personal thoughts out of it. After all, it’s published by Harvard, so it’s meant to be academic. But I felt like the first 100 pages were very repetitive—in other words, it feels like you keep reading the exact same sentence over and over again. However, the content and subject-matter and ambition of the book is essential reading. This book was depressingly fascinating, the research is extensive, the history is meticulous, and the sweeping history of incarcerating young black men is long and hard and consistent. Currently, we live in an era of mass incarceration, which disproportionately has affected young African American men. How’d we get here? This book will take you from beginning to end (wait…beginning to now); she will take you detail by detail, program by program, policy by policy, administration by administration, president by president—without gaps. Elizabeth Hinton will show you that, contrary to popular narrative, the War on Crime was first started by a Democrat, and his name was Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Great Society had an evil twin, and that evil twin spawned ideas, and policies, and legacies that grew into the greatest penal nation in the world.

Does the Critic Matter?

What is “criticism”, who are “critics” and what sort of social role should they play in determining taste and value judgments are just a couple of the questions that New York Times journalist A.O. Scott attempts to explore in his charming, new book Better Living Through Criticism: how to think about art, pleasure, beauty and truth. Scott’s interest in the topic is certainly personal given his livelihood is based upon the notion that open societies benefit from a profession that functions to analyze, probe, and lay bare deeper truths about our various forms of expression, communication and creativity. Scott's tone is warm and self-reflexive. He understands and in some cases, sympathizes with the anti-intellectual strain of discourse that mocks his profession as elitist or unnecessary nor does he shy away from discussing criticism's inherent flaws and blind spots but he also makes a strong case for its noble role as an exercise in thinking about important matters connected to a democratic and increasingly culturally, complex society.

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.

Missing Brazil

Probably, like many of you, I spent a lot of time watching the Olympics over the past two weeks. Because of all the commercial breaks, I also got time to read. I reviewed my books-to-read list and discovered that there was not just one, but two books about Brazil.

Crossing the River: a Life in Brazil by Amy Ragsdale

Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio by Misha Glenny

I went with Amy Ragsdale’s story about her family’s year in Penedo, a small town in northeastern Brazil. Her father passed along to her the value of travel and experiencing other cultures. This was something she wanted to pass on to her children and she wanted to escape her fast-paced life in the United States.

If the Olympics gave you a little taste of Brazil and you want more, settle down with Ragsdale’s book and see how Brazilian culture transforms her family.

One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

 In 1980, the Chinese Government enacted a one child policy, mandating that each family could only have one child in hopes of curbing the rapid population growth of the country. This controversial policy was put into place to avoid facing another disaster like the Great Chinese Famine from 1959-1961 that killed an estimated 15 to 30 million people

However, there were unintended consequences. At the beginning of this year the one child policy was lifted, but millions of families are still have to live with the unique challenges it caused, such as the gender imbalance caused by widespread infanticide, and millions of unauthorized second children who live unacknowledged by the state, unable to attend school, or even get a library card.

In OneChild: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment, Mei Fong explores the aftermath of this policy through well researched analysis, and by following families to capture the repercussions through a more personal lens. This book is a really fascinating, eye-opening read. I definitely recommend it. 

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!

Under the Big Black Sun

In 1981, my family flew to Hermosa Beach, California to visit my Aunt Sally and enjoy the California sun. I was a 13 year old Middle School student, had never been outside of the Midwest, and my idea of California was all about Hollywood movies and a 1950’s idea of beach/surfing culture. Walking around the sleepy beach town that first day opened my eyes to the dark menace that was the early 80’s punk rock scene in and around LA, including sleepy Hermosa Beach. That brief glimpse, and the cassettes that I purchased during that trip, changed the trajectory of the remainder of my youth and ultimately influenced my view of the world. Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk provides the real story behind what I glimpsed when I was 13. Told through chapter-length tales from some of the scenesters that survived that dangerous and nihilistic time, Under the Big Black Sun is a vibrant front-row seat into a legendary scene the likes of which we aren’t likely to see again.

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn

As a child walks through her town, she greets the summer morning, the big orange sun, the walking sticks and butterflies . . . “Hello, chill in the air.” And they reply to her; “Hello, it’s time to bring out your thick sweaters and scarves.”

Simple, thoughtful text is matched with lovely illustrations with many small details to catch the eye of the youngest listener. Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn is a beautiful picture book about the changing season.


Sewers and the Rats That Love Them

There are some kids out there who ask why the sky is blue, what stars are made of, and if magic is real. Then there are kids who ask where the stuff in the toilet goes after you flush. And some adults wonder too. Or maybe I’m the only one.

Anyway, I stumbled across Sewers and the Rats That Love Them, by Kelly Barnhill, after reading The Mostly True Story of Jack and searching Barnhill in the catalog to see what else she has written. I was delighted to discover this book of gross and learned from its 28 pages of sanitation information facts about the history of waste removal, the steps of wastewater treatment, and why sewers make terrific homes for rats. I thought the book was really cool and it made me grateful for indoor plumbing, which is probably my favorite modern invention. Indulge your kids’ or your own curiosity with this interesting book, and maybe look into Barnhill’s other peculiar nonfiction titles, such as Sick, Nasty Medical Practices, The Bloody Book of Blood, and Animals with No Eyes, among others. I won’t even think you’re that weird.