Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Have you ever waited years to finish reading a series? I’ve been waiting for the final book in the Heaven trilogy ever since 2003 when I finished reading First Part Last. The wait is over! Angela Johnson finishes her trilogy with the recent release; Sweet, Hereafter. Just as with her other books, Johnson invites you into the lives of teens and their families from a small town in Ohio. The characters are so beautifully written; you want to be a part of their lives and watch them come of age. Sweet, Hereafter touches on topics of war, identity, family and high school relationships in a quick read that will leave you wanting to read more. Thank you Angela Johnson for allowing me to be a part of the lives of your friends in Heaven!
The world of arts and letters lost two titans today. Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States and the notoriously reclusive J.D. Salinger, who wrote one of the most widely read books about teenage alienation ever written, The Catcher in the Rye. These two seminal works have been enormously influential in shaping the literary and intellectual life of several generations of writers, scholars and students. Find out more about their lives and contributions here:
A people's history of the United States : 1492-present
When conjuring images of New York City, most often we think of the Big Apple as an imposing behemoth of concrete and steel, constructed to suit the architecture of commerce and the needs of infrastructure without deference to wilderness. Joel Meyerowitz’s Legacy: The Preservation of Wilderness in New York City Parks will go a long way as a visual corrective to the idea that New York City’s evolution as a concrete jungle has purged nature entirely from inside of its borders. Legacy is a coffee table sized book with gorgeous and evocative photographs, composed to illustrate the living results of a long-standing commitment by city officials and conservationists to preserve “pockets of wilderness within the urban environs.” Covering all five boroughs, Meyerowitz creates visual moments that present us with a fresh perspective on New York City’s relationship to the struggle and perseverance of the organic world while “contextualizing these corners of nature as an inextricable part of city life today.”
Just as powerful in eliciting both intellectual and emotional responses, Photo:Box is a wonderful collection of iconic images, both color and black and white works, arranged by categories like war, nudes, portraits, travel, cities, and reportage. Both the drama and the banality of everyday life are captured in celluloid time by both contemporary photographers and well documented masters of the craft. Etched into our public consciousness, many of the image makers and photographs are well known (Richard Avedon, Nan Goldin, Lauren Greenfield, Dorthea Lange, Man Ray, Robert Capa) and have been published hundreds of times, yet they still continue to draw our attention to their curious contents, asking of the critical mind to raise questions about the intersection between media, image and reality.
Legacy : the preservation of wilderness in New York City parks
Take-Off: American All-Girl Bands During WWII is a book with a CD that tells a story seldom heard. Take-Off is a great introduction to swing music and features recordings of some of the all-women swing bands that came into their own during the war. More than half of the tracks on the CD included with the book Take-Off were performed by The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a sixteen piece band that was integrated at a time when, in many locales in the Jim Crow Deep South, it was actually illegal for black and white musicians to play together. The Sweethearts toured there, but not much. For the most part, they played sold out shows in New York, Chicago, Washington, and other cities in the North. In 1945 they traveled to Europe with the USO.
Check out the book Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World, illustrated by 2010 Caldecott Medal winner Jerry Pinkney. Marilyn Nelson’s poems speak in the voices of some of the instruments in the band: Tiny Davis’s trumpet, Ina Bell Byrd’s trombone, Roz Cron’s tenor saxophone, or bandleader Anna Mae Winburn’s baton reminiscing from the shelves of a New Orleans pawnshop about struggles and glory gone by. The Sweethearts, and the other swing bands featured in Take-Off, played music based in the blues and filled with driving energy and joy. Why not place a hold on the books right now?
Sweethearths of Rhythm
Rosemary Bray’s memoir first attracted me because she grew up very close to where I spent my childhood. She mentioned so many of the places and events that had been part of my youth. Reading that Rosemary’s mother took her and her siblings on weekly visits to Blackstone Library thrilled me because my very first job had been at the Blackstone Library. But Ms. Bray’s story is so much more inspiring than mine, because even though she grew up in poverty and on welfare she became one of the first black women to attend and graduate from Yale. In Unafraid of the Dark: a memoir, Rosemary Bray reveals how the dark side of her life was made more tolerable by her resourceful mother who would not give up. When her children were starving and needed clothes she went against her abusive husband’s orders and applied for welfare. Inspite of poverty, abuse and feelings of inferiority Rosemary managed to graduate from Francis Parker School, one of Chicago's most affluent schools.
Journalist, Rosemary Bray, wrote Unafraid of the Dark: a memoir to argue that the old welfare system permitted people to rise up to become productive citizens in a way that today’s welfare reform will not allow. I found her book to be insightful as well as intriguing. Rosemary also wrote a Martin Luther King biography for children.
Unafraid of the dark: a memoir
“Fast for a few days. Don’t have a lot of people around. Be alone and quiet. You’ll start to hear yourself, feel yourself. You’ll hear from the you that’s not the you your family, society, or history created.”
Perhaps not the sort of advice that one might expect from a legend of hip hop music; but Robert Diggs (aka RZA, The Abbot, Bobbie Digital), producer, rapper, author, actor, film director, creator and spiritual leader of the hip hop juggernaut The Wu-Tang Clan, is full of surprises, contradictions, and inspiration in his new memoir meets eclectic spiritual guidebook The Tao of Wu. Mixing 5 Percent Nation Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist beliefs with kung-fu film philosophy, chess master wisdom, and his own gritty life experiences, RZA writes about a youth spent bearing witness to the rise of rap music, searching for true knowledge through religious pursuits and kung-fu movies, but never far from the swift violence and grim realities that surrounded his upbringing in the housing projects of Staten Island. After being acquitted on an attempted murder charge in the early 1990’s, RZA set his mind upon walking a righteous path and literally walked from one end of Staten Island to the other, as he puts it “like Da’Mo walked from India to China”, thinking about his life and music and formulating plans and musical ideas that would eventually manifest in the legendary Wu-Tang Clan.
The Wu-Tang Clan's music.
Ghost Dog: the way of the Samurai - Fantastic Jim Jarmusch film for which RZA provided much of the musical score and appears in an iconic scene at the very end of the film.
Digging for Dirt: the life and death of ODB - chronicling the chaotic life and tragic death of one of the most celebrated members of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Check the technique : liner notes for hip-hop junkies - Features a chapter on the Wu-Tang Clan.
Blakroc - collaboration album with indie rock blues band The Black Keys and several hip hop luminaries including a great track featuring lyrics and guitar playing by RZA.
The Tao of Wu
There’s nothing like a family gathering to increase tension among kin. In Real Life and Liars, the debut novel by Grand Rapids native Kristina Riggle, readers are brought along to a celebratory weekend in Charlevoix.
It’s Mira and Max’s 35th wedding anniversary. Mira, who recently learned she has breast cancer, hasn’t decided whether to pursue treatment, and her indecision has placed a wedge between her and Max, causing past hurts and resentments to surface. Mira also hasn’t decided how and when to tell their adult children, two daughters and a son, all of whom are juggling their own share of troubles. As the weekend progresses, it brews up a storm.
The trials and uneasy negotiations that come with being part of a family are real life, Riggle’s story tells us. Anything else just isn’t true.
Meet Kristina Riggle on Feb. 3 as she reads from and signs copies of her book.
Real Life and Liars
It seems fitting, near this first “official” day of winter, to talk about prolific author Jean Little’s newest children’s book titled Dancing Through the Snow. The setting for this heart-warming story could be in any large urban city in the United States or Canada. Since Little is Canadian, this one is set in an un-named province.
Min, the main character, is somewhere around twelve years old, and has just been returned, for the fourth time, to Children’s Aid by her foster parent who “needs a break from kids”. Right before Christmas, Min in taken home by a medical doctor names Jessica Hart. Used to having nothing, “no family, no baby pictures, no real birthday” (book jacket), Min has a bit of a difficult time with this new adjustment. Gradually, she realizes that Dr. Hart, Jess, is just what she seems: kind, open, sharing, and loving in a way that Min has never experienced. Min makes friends, gets a puppy, and disposes of her eight-year-old braids which she has used as a comfort in her various foster homes and schools.
The ending is predictable, but happy all the same. Min, well, I don’t want to tell you any more about Min, because then you won’t want to read the story yourself!
Dancing Through the Snow
I’m not a big fan of short stories, but when one of my favorite novelists publishes a short story collection, I usually read it and am seldom disappointed.
A Good Fall by National Book award winner, Ha Jin, is a strong collection of loosely related stories. All are set in the Chinese immigrant community in Flushing area of New York City. They address the challenges and loneliness of finding one’s place in America from various generational perspectives. He writes of anxiety and trust, desire for love and companionship, economic challenges.
I know it’s way too early to be thinking about my favorites of 2010, but this just could be a contender.
A Good Fall
Here is a book that was first published the same year I was, a story I first encountered when I was in about the fifth grade in the early 1960s. The book-based movie starring Spencer Tracy was on TV and I watched it at home with my dad. This was during the time that most Kalamazoo televisions were still black and white and received three channels only, four if the weather happened to be good that day.
Having a lingering impression of the powerful drama of the plot, I eventually read the book sometime during the summer between high school and college. Since I was already working here at KPL, finding a copy was not a problem! This novel about the Cuban fisherman and his long struggle with the marlin he caught is truly a masterpiece. I’m not generally a voracious reader of fiction, but this is one novel in which I took great delight.
The Old Man and the Sea