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Staff Picks: Books

The Nordic theory of everything : in search of a better life

I picked up this book expecting something completely different than what it actually is. The quick blurb I read about the book said something about how the author had moved from Finland to the United States, and was reflecting on how Nordic attitudes could improve life in the US. I was expecting a light-hearted look at cultural differences, such as food and traditions. What I got was an in-depth look at the how the political policies of the Nordic countries reduce income inequality, provide universal healthcare to all citizens, provide free education through college, and guarantee medical and parental leave. This allows people to live relatively free from the constant fear of doing into debt for medical or higher education. As she says, the American dream is alive and well in Finland.

Another great thing about this book was the effort she took to seriously consider all of the concerns that Americans have about adopting these types of social programs. For instance, she addresses the concern over higher taxes by comparing real tax rates for people in all income levels.

If you’ve ever looked at taxes, health insurance, college loans, or child care and thought “There has to be a better way”, this book might be for you.

She Stood for Freedom

"You can never go wrong by doing what is right. It might not be easy, but it is always right," said Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. She Stood for Freedom is the story of a little-known Civil Rights Hero. Born in 1941, Joan was raised in the segregated southern United States. Because of the different ways that they had been socialized, Joan's parents disagreed with each other about segregation. Joan began college at Duke University, her mother's choice. At that time, Duke University was a segregated school - black students weren't allowed to attend. Even so, at this all white institution, some students of conscience including Joan began to connect with black students at other colleges and to help with the civil rights movement in the south.

Joan went on to participate in sit-ins and other demonstrations against businesses and institutions that discriminated against people because of race. After a Freedom Riders bus was bombed in May, 1961, she joined the Freedom Rides movement protesting discrimination in interstate travel. For these actions, Joan and others who had traveled to Mississippi to help were arrested and was imprisoned at the Mississippi State Penitentiary. When she was released, she remained in Mississippi where she was admitted to attend Tougaloo College. Unlike segregated Duke University, Tougaloo was a primarily-black school. Because Tougaloo was the rare place in Mississippi where people could gather together regardless of the color of their skin, it was an institution that provided a venue for writers, musicians, and speakers who were also involved in the civil rights movement.

The brutality that Joan and to a greater extent many of her compatriots experienced at a sit-in at a lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi, is documented in photographs from those events and others. The book includes other primary sources including a letter from the Superintendent of Parchman Penitentiary to Joan’s parents that reflects the institutional racism in the prison system. A younger readers’ picture book edition tells the story without as many details or primary sources. It seems like it would have been easy for Joan, with her privileged background, to step back from doing what she knew was right. She continued down a path of non-violent organizing and action that helped in the passage of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Joan went on to raise a family and to work as a teacher’s assistant in Virginia. Her son, Loki Mulholland, is a filmmaker and wrote this biography. His film, An Ordinary Hero, tells his mother's story and is featured at the National Civil Rights Museum.

American Treasures

December 26, 1941: “He wouldn’t fully relax until the B & O National Limited reached its final destination the following morning, but the fact that the train was leaving Washington, D.C., carrying its cargo, accompanied by two of his finest agents, was a promising milestone in the mission.”

So what was on the train? American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address describes the work to safely secure and store these documents, an effort lead by the Library of Congress. So where were they stored? I’m not giving that secret away – read this fascinating book.

I won’t say this is a page-turner but the back stories about these three documents and how they came to be, is quite interesting as are the efforts to protect, preserve, and appropriately display them over the years. 

The importance of these documents seems especially relevant in this season of political rancor. I have renewed, deeper appreciation and respect for the founding fathers and the documents they drafted.

Dog Lost- Humanity Found

Pauls Toutonghi's "Dog Gone: A Lost Pet's Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home" is the beautifully written true account of one family's life prior to their son's losing his spirited dog, Gonker, and what transpires during the ensuing search for him.

Gonker is a six-year old golden retriever mix who on Saturday, October 10, 1998 is hiking the Appalachian Trail with his best friend Fielding Marshall when, without any warning, he bolts into the woods. Fielding calls and calls for his dog to return, but to no avail; Gonker simply vanishes into the surrounding wilderness.

The book is not only about the meticulous search that the family conducts for their beloved dog(who happens to be especially fond of fresh doughnuts), but also delves into the lives of each member of the Marshall family-father John, mother Ginny, sister Peyton and of course, Fielding. Author Toutonghi becomes immersed in their story. He probes deeply into their family history, highlighting both it's good and ugly faces. He also examines the strong bind between canines and humans from various historical, literary, psychological and philosophical perspectives.

To heighten the tension of the search narrative, it is revealed that Gonker suffers from Addison's disease which requires him to receive an injection every twenty-three days.The author then counts down the days to Gonker's demise at the beginning of each chapter in the final third of the book.

Great read! I thoroughly enjoyed it! This is a great title to pick up in October which, as it turns out, happens to be "Adopt a Shelter Dog Month". So, plunge yourself into this wonderfully heartfelt true story of humans and their relationship with their pets. Then, if you should get inspired, go out and adopt a new four-legged canine friend from any one of the following local animal welfare organizations: Animal Rescue,Animal Control Shelter, SPCA, Animal's Best Friend, Richland Animal Rescue, etc.

Who knows, maybe as with some members of the Marshall family, the life you end up saving  just may be your own.

Girl Mans Up

Girl Mans Up is a teen book by M-E Girard about Pen, a girl who just doesn't fit in the way people want her to. She has to navigate the normal challenges of high school, which include supporting a new friend through an accidental pregnancy, figuring out her changing relationships with her guy friends, and dating for the first time. In addition, she is living the truth of her gender identity and sexuality, while fighting the intense disapproval of her traditional Portuguese parents and others at school and in public. Pen's honest, funny, and thoughtful perspective drew me into this novel, and the other characters were just as interesting. Pick Pen for your new favorite LGBTQ/teen protagonist.

Don't Miss Out!

 In case you didn’t know, right now in theatres there is a brilliant movie called the Queen of Katwe. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, and David Oyelowo, it follows the journey of a young girl named Phiona living in the slums of Uganda who learns the game of chess and quickly skyrockets through the ranks to be a national champion, even competing in international competitions for the rank of Grandmaster. In the process, she is able to improve life conditions for herself, her family, and uplift the community as a whole. 


Right after the credits rolled, I headed straight to the bookshelves to find out more about this incredible individual. The biographythe movie is based on, by Tim Crothers, fleshes out the inspirational tale a bit more to  include the political climate of the country at the time, and gives more details about some of the great challenges Phiona Mutesi was able to overcome.  Don’t miss out on this great story of true life triumph! 

Ask Me How I Got Here

Written in verse, Ask Me How I Got Here, gives us a quick glimpse of life for a pregnant teenager. Addie is a good student, star runner who attends a Catholic school for girls. With the support of her parents and boyfriend, she gets an abortion. The poems that follow as Addie struggles through morality class, pep assemblies and quitting the cross country team are short but powerful. Addie gives poetic thought to religion, women’s rights, choice and her own story of self discovery. The book ends with a list of community and national resources to help ensure that no one ever has to face an unplanned pregnancy alone.

Nat Turner and Slave Resistance

Filmmaker Nate Parker made history at this year's Sundance Film Festival when he sold his film, The Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid at the festival. The film went on to win the festival's U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. When asked in an interview why he chose to use the same title for his film as the 1915 silent film often credited as a catalyst for the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Parker responded, "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."

When news of this film at Sundance first emerged many months ago, some friends and I were discussing our eager anticipation of the film, which opens in theaters today. Those conversations led me to think more about slave revolts and how these episodes in American history are often minimized, or completely ignored. In fact, well into the mid-20th century some white scholars of American history still claimed that Africans passively accepted enslavement. We know this isn't the case, but it's not a topic covered very thoroughly by most history courses before university-level. Wanting to learn more, I began reading more works on slave resistance.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
Historian Gerald Horne argues the Revolutionary War was a tactic used by the founding fathers to prevent the abolition of slavery in the colonies, challenging the traditional narrative of our country's founding. Highly recommended.

American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen
This book details the 1811 revolt in what is present-day Louisiana. Hundreds of slaves from several different sugar cane plantations marched together in an attempt to overtake New Orleans. It is thought the Haitian Revolution, ending in 1804, partly inspired this uprising, which was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the execution of 95 slaves.

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
This award-winning graphic novel details Turner's life, beginning with his mother's enslavement and ending with his execution for his role in the revolt.

Ardency: a Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This is a poetic retelling of the Amistad revolt by poet and scholar Kevin Young, who was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for poetry and was named director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this past August.

Atlas of Cursed Places

When people see the term 'atlas' in the title of this book, they will probably think it's such a large tome that they will have to try to park close by when they come to pick it up. This is not the case with Atlas of Cursed Places : A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations, since it has only 142 pages. Speaking for myself, I'll be honest and say I'm not going to use this scary volume as a 'travel guide,' but I enjoyed looking at it nonetheless. The back cover of the book describes some of the locations to visit, which include the dangerous Strait of Messina, location of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, India, where the ground constantly burns with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 5 million migrating bats darken the skies; and Aokigahara, a forest near Mt. Fuji in Japan, the world's second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge. And, what would a book of this nature be without a chapter on the Bermuda Triangle? A bonus is that each entry is accompanied by a vintage map.

Walking Through a World of Aromas

While preparing for a presentation on diversity in children's literature, I came across Walking through a world of aromas by Ariel Andres Almada.  What a delightful book.  It tells the story of Annie, a young girl that is vision-impaired.  Annie learns to overcome many obstacles and develops an ability to "smell" a world that she cannot see.  I am particularly impressed with the powerful, yet mellow illustrations.  This is a definite must read for preschoolers and early elementary school readers.