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Staff Picks: Books

The Poisoning of Michigan

The environmental history of Michigan in the twentieth century (and beyond) has been one characterized by intermittent disasters with wide-ranging implications for the health and well-being of its citizens. One need only examine the Environmental Protection Agency’s maps of Superfund sites (specially-designated toxic waste remediation locations) in Michigan to better understand the legacy of these problems.

We have seen recent examples play out over the last year including the Flint water crisis and the discovery of water contamination stemming from a decommissioned Air Force Base in Oscoda. Citizens of Kalamazoo will be well-aware of the Allied Paper Mill / Portage Creek / Kalamazoo River Superfund PCB remediation process that has dominated the environmental consciousness of Kalamazoo and Allegan counties since the early 1990s.

As alarming as these scenarios have been, the effects and general contamination produced by each could be described as relatively localized, at least in comparison to a 1973 disaster, which resulted in the poisoning of the general population (approximately 9 million individuals) of Michigan through compromised dairy products. This event is the subject of The Poisoning of Michigan by Joyce Egginton.

Egginton begins by summarizing the broad strokes of the accident, which originated at the Michigan Chemical Corporation in St. Louis, MI, where a variety of industrial chemicals were produced. Among these were NutriMaster, an additive for livestock feed which was shown to increase milk production in dairy cows and have other beneficial effects, and FireMaster, a polybrominated biphenyl (a type of chemical very similar to PCBs) that was being used at the time as an industrial fire-retardant. The chemicals were nearly indistinguishable to the naked eye, and a paper shortage had led to some extremely questionable techniques being implemented to label the 50-pound brown paper bags in which both NutriMaster and FireMaster were shipped.

The outcome of this unconscionable confluence of circumstances was that in the Spring of 1973 a truck driver delivered several thousand pounds of Firemaster to the largest agricultural feed plant in Michigan where it was unknowingly combined with livestock feed, dispersed to more than 5,000 farms all over the state, and fed to a variety of farm animals for nearly a year before being positively identified.

Egginton goes on to discuss in heart-wrenching detail the efforts of a handful of individuals, including a dairy farmer with a chemistry degree, who worked to pinpoint the cause of what followed: cows lost weight precipitously, milk production plummeted, chickens were born with tumors, animals in general refused to eat and perished. Similar outcomes awaited humans who consumed the products produced by those animals. So wide-spread was the contamination that a noticeable decline in the athletic prowess of Michigan sports teams was observed during the years of peak contamination. All of this took place within an atmosphere which Egginton describes as one characterized by bureaucratic denial, industrial indifference, and the isolation of the afflicted.

Originally published in 1980, this is by no means a new book, but it is one of the most important I have read in years. The degree of contamination is more or less unparalleled in the United States. Occasionally the disaster is revisited and the ongoing effects measured and discussed, but proportional to its impact, this event seems to have become a little-known chapter in the environmental and agricultural history of the state.

Princeless: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Princeless is an all-ages, ongoing comic book series written by Jeremy Whitley with art and colors by M. Goodwin, and is published by Action Lab Comics. I am recommending the first trade paperback of the book, which collects the first 4 issues into one book. Or, if you prefer, you can access the series on your computer or tablet through Hoopla. You will find individual issues as well as the volumes there. 

Princess Adrienne's parents have locked her and her sisters into towers throughout the kingdom, with a different mythical creature guarding each one against would-be rescuers. The king and queen want a suitable husband for each daughter, and a worthy son-in-law as an heir to the throne. Whoever slays the beast gets the girl, and therefore proves himself as the best suitor. 

Adrienne decides to fight the status quo by embarking on a quest to rescue her sisters herself. A quirky female blacksmith named Bedelia and Adrienne's lovable dragon, Sparky, help her to begin her journey. Her brother Devin, who is more interested in prose than sword-fighting, also aids Adrienne. I love this book because it addresses sexism, gender roles, abuse of power by law enforcement, and other important themes, but in a humorous way that anybody can understand. And of course it tears down fairy tale cliches. Boys and girls, young and old, will enjoy this book. If you have not read a comic book before and you would like to try, just remember to follow it from top to bottom, and from left to right. Once you practice a bit, it comes easily.

Writing My Wrongs

After having the opportunity to see Shaka Senghor at Bookbug earlier this spring, I immediately checked out a copy of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison and quickly became engrossed in this young author’s fascinating and inspiring story. In alternating chapters that move between the period leading up to his incarceration at age 19, and the period encompassing his 19-year imprisonment, Senghor presents a comprehensive account of how, despite all the cards presumably stacked against him as an African American boy growing up in Detroit, he was able to rise above his mistakes. He now travels the country as a lecturer on criminal justice reform, and is a living example of the benefits of journalling, reading, and self-exploration that resulted in his ultimate release, after a sentence that included a total of seven years in solitary confinement. And although those particular details are not for the faint of heart, Senghor’s story is one of hope, forgiveness, and redemption.


I like weird books and I cannot lie! If you like them too, checkout HOT DOG TASTE TEST by illustrator Lisa Hanawalt. The book is ostensibly about foodie culture and such, but Hanawalt’s charming watercolor illustrations, wacky animal obsessions, and just plain weird and wonderful sense of humor make this so much more.

After You by Jojo Moyes (sequel to Me Before You)

To those of you who have read Me Before You, I am here to recommend the sequel, After You. Author Jojo Moyes continues to craft relatable, interesting stories for the characters she brought to life in Me Before You as well as introducing a few new people. The best part of this sequel is that the other characters are given more time to develop instead of Louisa being the main focus. We get to see Camilla and Steven Traynor’s lives after Will, observe Josie’s growth and her marriage with Bernard more closely, and view Treena’s situation from a fresh angle. The only character I did not like, a teenage girl with a ton of personal and family issues, became very important and even her story interested me. Moyes delves into themes of grief, depression, and isolation in After You and succeeds in painting a very real portrait of loss that is important to find in fiction. We watch how long it takes Louisa to get her life back on track after the events of Me Before You and appreciate that her recovery takes a lot of time and introspection. While it did require more patience from me to stay with Louisa during this most challenging time in her life, it was worth it to reach the book’s satisfying conclusion.



Emma Dodd's picture books are among my favorite to read with my kids. My latest favorite is, Happy, the story of a Mama Owl and her happiness with her babies. The beautiful illustrations with occasional metallic accents always grab our attention. The rhyming, joyful text comforts us when we're grumpy because it's almost time for bed. The sweet, but not achingly sweet, storyline brings us closer together as we read. I know my children will cherish these titles when they leave my house and I'm grateful we get to share them while they are young. For a complete list of Emma Dodd's titles, check out our catalog.

Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza

You think you like pizza? Colin Hagendorf likes pizza. Middle-aged, crusty punk Colin likes pizza so much, in fact, that in August 2009, he set out to eat a slice of cheese pizza from every single pizzeria in Manhattan, and in the process started the blog Slice Harvester. This book is a record of his pizza adventures over the course of two years and nearly 400 pizza slices, good and bad (frequently bad). Along the way, he meets the third-generation Italian owner of one of NYC's best pizza joints, eats pizza with celebrities, drinks, fights, and reevaluates his existence. More than just a pizza travelogue or simple list of reviews, Slice Harvester is warts-and-all memoir of some very bad behavior and questionable decision-making. If you like your pizza topped with attitude, sarcasm, and a dash of self-loathing, take this one home today!

Far From the Tree(1)

I was trying to think of a book that I could recommend for LGBTQ Pride Month and my mind keeps going back to a deeply moving book I read a few years ago by Andrew Solomon called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Most of the book is not about LGBTQ issues, but Solomon’s research and empathetic voice helps bring awareness and appreciation for the view point of many different kinds of people, which is a major goal of Pride Month.

Through interviews with parents, Solomon explores the lives of families raising children with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities; and with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, and who are transgender. The summary in our catalog describes the book as, “elegantly reported by a spectacularly original thinker, Far from the Tree explores themes of generosity, acceptance, and tolerance--all rooted in the insight that love can transcend every prejudice. This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human.”

Do not be put off by the size of the book. If you just can’t get yourself to take on a project this big, the chapters stand mostly alone so you could pick and choose what you wanted to read. Also, just reading the introduction is highly satisfying, as you encounter more compelling and fascinating ideas than most whole books.

In the chapter on transgender children, Solomon mentions a documentary titled Prodigal Sons that was made by one of the subjects of that chapter. I was delighted to see that the library owned a copy and I highly recommend it.

Bear and Hare - Two Good Friends Off On Another Gentle Adventure

Author and illustrator Emily Gravett has written another book featuring that likeable pair, Bear and Hare.

In Bear & Hare: Where’s Bear?, the duo play hide and seek and unfortunately it’s Bear’s turn to hide. After counting to ten, Hare has no problem finding Bear as he attempts to conceal himself in places that are far from obscure. Bear is just too large!

Then it’s Hare’s turn to hide while Bear counts to ten. Bear has a much more difficult time finding Hare. He looks in the teapot, under the rug, and under the blanket. Bear gives up and decides that a quick nap is in order. He curls up under the blanket, while Hare, comes out the other end. Now Hare is once again looking for his friend Bear. Finally, after checking all of Bear’s previously ineffective hiding spots, Hare states loudly “I WANT BEAR!” Bear comes out from underneath his blanket and they reunite with a big hug. There! They’re back together once more, and all is well with the world!

A sweet and endearing story which is sure to please any preschool child. Wonderful whimsy!


No Ordinary Sound

I highly recommend No Ordinary Sound by Denise Lewis Patrick.  The story introduces Melody Ellison, the latest addition to the American Girl historical dolls line BeForever.  Reading it transported me back to my childhood growing up in Detroit during the 1960s.  It is a wonderful read and I was so impressed with all the authentic references to the city and the time period.

Melody is a talented 9-year-old who loves to sing.  Her story unfolds as she tries to balance her youthful dreams with the harsh realities of growing up during the Civil Rights Era.  After Melody is chosen to sing a solo at her church recital, she experiences set-backs at home, in her community, and in her country.

The author has written a true classic here.  I can't wait for the Melody Ellison doll to debut this summer.  I just might find myself standing in line at a mall somewhere.