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Staff Picks: Books


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.

Paper Girls 2 For Me and You!

Paper Girls 2 is here! If you're new to the series, just know that it is the perfect comic to read while waiting for season 2 of Stranger Things. Complete with a great group of kids, crazy monsters, and 1980s hairstyles in all their feather- fringed glory. If you are already a fan, you’ll remember, at the end of Paper Girls Volume 1, KJ was still missing, and the gang was mysteriously transported out of the 80s. If you’ve somehow been patient enough to wait for the next volume instead of going out to buy the single comics, you’ll be excited to know this one starts right where the last one left off—with the girls being dropped right in the middle of 2016, and Erin coming face to face with her adult self!

Will Erin be disappointed in her future self? Will they ever find KJ? Will the paper girls be able to survive the horrors of 2016???

There's only one way to find out-- check it out right now!

Do you say soda or pop?

Speaking American got us all talking at Washington Square. How do you say “crayon” or “coupon” or “grocery store”? Do you say pop or soda, scratch paper or scrap paper, takeout or carry-out, drinking fountain or water fountain or bubbler? It probably depends on where you are from in the U.S.

We have had so much fun looking at the maps of where words are used and reading the short entries on the idiosyncracies of certain states or even cities. My wife, from Kansas, hates that I say, “You want to come with?” You can’t end a sentence with a preposition, right? Well, the majority of people in Minnesota and Chicago do. Bingo, I’m from Chicago. My colleagues tested me by asking what I called shoes that you wear for sports. Gym shoes, of course. Well, only in Chicago or Cincinnati. Everyone else says either “tennis shoes” or “sneakers.” 

I was also happy to see crayfish-crawfish-crawdad in there. Throughout our marriage, we have jokingly tried to convince our kids that those crustaceans are called crayfish (Chicago) or crawdad (Kansas). When I showed it to my wife it started the debate again and she said, “They aren’t fish.” Then I said, “Well, they aren’t dads either.” After a second more to think, I said, “Well, at least half of them aren’t.”

Also, now I know why my brother who moved to Connecticut started saying tag sale rather than garage sale. 

You will love looking through this book, especially if you do it with someone else.

Difficult Women

I was already looking forward to Roxane Gay's forthcoming collection of short stories; then I heard her interviewed on All Things Considered. And the reviews have been favorable, with Kirkus stating  "Gay is an admirable risk-taker in her exploration of women's lives and new ways to tell their stories." Now I'm even more eager to read it! 

She also has a memoir, Hunger, coming out this spring. 

Ten Prayers That Changed the World

Subtitled Extraordinary Stories of Faith That Shaped the Course of History, this is a 2016 book published by the National Geographic Society. In it are stories about ten prayers selected by author Jean-Pierre Isbouts, historian and doctoral professor at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. The book is naturally divided into ten chapters which are: Abraham's Plea, Jesus' Prayer to Abba, The Dream of Constantine, The Voices of Joan of Arc, Martin Luther's Hymn, George Washington's Prayer, The Prayer of St. Francis, The Prayer for Bastogne, Gandhi's Prayer for Peace, and Mother Teresa's Daily Prayer. As can be seen, these chapters cover a wide variety of religious persuasions, thought, and practice. Thus this volume can be used as an aid in personal devotion or as a historical study.

The Last Battle

During the last few hours of the last day of World War II, in a remote medieval castle in an otherwise sleepy part of the Austrian countryside, US and German troops joined forces during one of the strangest and least-likely battles of the entire war. The Last Battle is an account of the hours leading up to that battle, when a small unit of defecting German conscripts and a handful of battle-weary US soldiers fought off two hundred Waffen-SS loyalists trying to take control of the Schloss Itter castle and capture the six French VIPs held captive inside. Desperately low on ammunition, and with only a single battle-damaged tank parked on the castle entrance, the US and German troops- along with the support of dozens of concentration camp survivors, Austrian resistance fighters, and the bickering French VIPs themselves- managed to hold off the invading SS troops long enough for reinforcements to arrive. That this book hasn't somehow been turned into a huge-budgeted Hollywood film is almost as astonishing as the story itself.

The Poet's Dog

Patricia MacLachlan creates another heartwarming chapter book for readers of all ages with The Poet's Dog. This is an excellent book to read aloud with children. The relationships between pets, siblings, friends and poets will show you goodness, humor and love. “Dogs speak words, but only poets and children can hear. When you can’t find a poet, find a child.” Thank you to the author for these words. I love looking at the world through the eyes of children, and this book does that perfectly. Does the dog save the children, or do the children save the dog? You’ll have to read for yourself and see if you can decide!

I Am a Child of Books

And I hope you are too. Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston teamed up to create one of my favorite picture books of the year. This is a book that young children will delight in hearing, older children will revisit the artwork and creativity again and again, and book lovers of all ages will be moved by its story.

Child of Books tells the story of a girl who sails across the sea of stories and visits a forest of fairy tales. The waves of the sea are "made" from classic texts, the leaves on the trees are "made" from fairy tale words.

The incredible mixed-media artwork in this book alone is worth checking out. But the real magic of this book is its moving tribute to the power of stories and imagination have to make us into who we are and to help us imagine all that we could be.

The Edge of the Empire

By CE 130, the city of Rome was the center of an enormous empire, roughly rectangular in shape, that stretched from the province of Aegyptus (Egypt) at its southeastern corner to Britannia in the northwest. Bronwen Riley chooses CE 130 as the year in which she imagines and constructs a journey “from the heart of Rome to Hadrian’s Wall” in this wonderfully accessible 2016 offering. In doing so, she draws upon a wide variety of sources ranging from modern scholarship to the immutable contributions of Cassius Dio, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger.

While Egypt was immensely important to Rome, with the Nile River delta serving as the empire’s breadbasket, Britannia was… less so. Considered by cosmopolitan Romans to be the very embodiment of the term ‘provincial’, Britannia had functioned as an Imperial Province since CE 43 when the Emperor Claudius ordered finished the work begun by Julius Caesar almost a century prior. In the 90 years between CE 43 and 130, the Romans successfully secured their claim on Britannia, from the southern coast to the site of the modern village of Bowness-on-Solway, through the liberal application of butchery, diplomacy, and industry.

Unlike the tamer Senatorial Provinces closer to Rome such as Sicilia, Epirus, or even Macedonia, operations in Britannia were overseen by the Roman military. Riley selects for her travel companions the sorts of Romans who might be appointed to such a post. With her are Sextus Julius Severus, a battle-hardened Roman general who took up his governorship there in CE 130 and Minicius Natalis the Younger, the Patrician champion four-horse charioteer of the 227th Olympic Games, who assumed command of the Roman Sixth Legion at Eboracum (York) that same year.

Riley describes in exceptional detail the ins and outs of travelling as a Roman citizen during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, who we’ll recall from our Western Civ. courses as the third of the ‘Five Good Emperors’. How would one arrange for travel from the ports of Ostia to those in Gallia Narbonensis on the far side of the Alps? What should one know of the intricacies of Gallic hospitality on the way to Gesoriacum (Bulogne)? Here’s a travel tip: avoid the ‘pork’ offered by dodgy innkeepers if you harbor any qualms regarding potential acts of cannibalism.

Along the way, Riley draws attention to the myriad foundations of modern western civilization laid by Roman engineers. Upon arrival in the cities of Britannia, Riley focuses on the ways in which those engineers set to work emulating Roman life on the fringes of the empire. After all, city planning and the provision of civic institutions such as temples, amphitheaters, public baths, and above all, roads, were as important to Romans on the edge of their world as it was to those at its center.

It’s an engaging, immersive work that ultimately has far more in common with a historical monograph than a travel guide or a gazetteer, and in my opinion, comes off as less heavy and more approachable. Anglophiles and Romanophiles in particular will not be disappointed.

Utopia Is Creepy

Anyone familiar with his previous books, most notably The Shallows or The Glass Cage, knows Nicholas Carr as one of our greatest critical thinkers when it comes to technologies impact on society. Carr’s latest title, Utopia Is Creepy and other provocations, collects a decade’s worth of posts from his blog, along with several essays that focus squarely on undermining Silicon Valley’s Pollyannaish insistence that technology and the web can solve any problem facing society and will make EVERYTHING better. But Carr is far from a technophobic luddite, he clearly deeply understands the technology he skewers, but he also understands technologies limits. No matter where you land on the techy to technophobic scale, Carr’s stinging wit and casual style are well worth checking out.