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Staff Picks: Books


Susan Faludi, a feminist writer probably most famous for writing Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women, has a new book exploring her family’s history titled In the Darkroom. It begins when she is contacted by her father from whom she has been long estranged and he informs her that he is now Stephanie, having gone through sex reassignment surgery. As they renew their relationship, Faludi takes you on a fascinating journey into her father’s identity and the idea of identity itself. 

She explores her father’s history as a photographer, adept at manufacturing and manipulating images and weaves this into the many changes her father has gone through in life. Then she layers on top of that the history of Hungary, her father’s homeland and current place of residence, which she reveals to be a most willing accomplice in the extermination of Jews during World War II. This was the back drop for her Jewish father’s early years in Hungary before emigrating to the United States. 

It seems like a mystery novel with Faludi as the detective, turning up clues and illuminating her father’s story.

Furiously Happy!

Furiously Happy is the second book by Jenny Lawson, who is known on The Internet as The Bloggess. If you haven’t read any of her work, I suggest starting with her blog about Why you should learn to pick your battles. (Warning: Article contains swear words. So do the books. Lots of swear words.)

The tagline for Furiously Happy is “A funny book about horrible things”, and that’s exactly what it is. Lawson gives us an honest inside look at what living with a severe depression and anxiety feels like. She puts on display all the ugly and sad feelings, but also shows us how to live life fully. As always, the best part of her writing is the stories about her bizarre daily adventures, and antidotes about her dysfunctional-yet-loving relationship with her husband Victor.

I recommend this book to people who suffer from anxiety themselves, and anyone who wants to understand those who do.

Kalamazoo Community Mental Health wants to reduce the stigma of mental health. Learn more here.

Take a picture of me, James VanDerZee!

Years ago when I worked in archives, I would spend hours and hours looking through photos taken during the Harlem Renaissance era.  Most of those photos were taken by James VanDerZee, a brilliant African American photographer who had the ability to capture the true essence of his subjects.

VanDerZee was born in Lennox, Massachusetts in 1886.  As a young boy, he fell in love with "a huge contraption called a camera" and immediately taught himself how to take photos and develop the film in his own closet darkroom.  At 18, he moved to New York City when the Harlem Renaissance was beginning. After working several jobs, VanDerZee opened his own photography studio and began his journey photographing everyone and everything.  His photos were so well-produced, his services were in high demand for the next 60 plus years.

Andrea J. Loney introduces young readers to this amazing man in this well-written and illustrated biography picture book.  I recommend it for family reading.


A Flag Worth Dying For

Some time ago I wrote in this space about the book Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything about the World. Now comes author Tim Marshall with another book. This one is called A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols. In nine chapters Marshall gives histories of many of the world’s flags as well as anecdotes that make these histories interesting. I especially appreciated the color flag illustrations, particularly those of the many new countries that have evolved in the last quarter century. More than detailed accounts, these chapters analyze the symbolism and emotional impact the sight of a flag has on those who view it. According to Geographical magazine, ‘This might be the comprehensive flag volume we’ve all been waiting for – a slick yet detailed and well-researched journey through some of the world’s most infamous and interesting flags. Marshall guides us through this myriad of stories admirably.’


Raindrops Roll

It's no secret that April Pulley Sayre is one of my favorite picture book authors. This week I discovered her nonfiction book for young readers, Raindrops Roll. Her incredible photography and rhyming text make this pick a huge hit at my house. All of us, adults and kids, spent some time poring over the pages and repeating the lyrical rhymes. Check this one out today!

Incredible Bugs!

While shelving new children’s non-fiction books, I discovered Superstats: Incredible Bugs, part of the Superstats book series. The bright, clear photographs, surrounded by fun and interesting facts about insects, spiders, and other tiny creatures, immediately took me in. With quality images like a Dorling Kindersley “DK” book, and being full of factoids like a Guinness World Records book, I consider this book a winner. While Incredible Bugs’ suggested reader age range is 7-10 / grades 2-4, sharing the large photographs and more basic fun facts may be enjoyable to younger readers as well.

Locking Up Our Own

When it comes to mass incarceration, the most important book, in my opinion, is The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. But Locking Up Our Own takes a close second, being a very important supplement to the narrative that Michelle Alexander sets up. History shows that mass incarceration—regardless of intentions or personal prejudice—locked up young African American males at alarming rates, and still does. Institutional racism and white supremacy are the only reasonable explanations. That is the main plot. But James Forman Jr., in Locking Up Our Own, sheds light on an important subplot: African Americans supporting, enacting, and enforcing mass incarceration policies—that is, locking up their own. Black leaders, black ministers, black judges and prosecutors, black police chiefs, black voters, and even the first black U.S. Prosecuting attorney Eric Holder supported tough-on-crime policies, partly because of classism within the black community, partly because of the heroine and crack epidemics, and mostly because they wanted safe communities. And, in their defense, most of these black leaders wanted tough-on-crime measures in addition to uplifting social and economic policies. Unfortunately, all they got was the former, not the latter.

James Forman Jr. draws on his experience as a defense attorney for Washington D.C. criminal courts. Highly readable, highly informed, highly tragic. Forman calls for a piecemeal approach to solving the problem, by slowly chipping away at the policies that got us here. In the end, he thinks any real solution requires shattering the arbitrary distinction between non-violent vs. violent criminals—a paradigm shift in thinking.

Utopia for Realists

Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, praises Utopia for Realists as “bold, fresh ideas, and lively prose.” I concur. While the big, progressive ideas are fun enough to explore—universal basic income, a 15-hour workweek, and open borders—the writing is exciting, confident, funny, entertaining, down to earth, and heavy-hitting. The author doesn’t get bogged down in the weeds and clearly has a grasp of global ideas and trends in various disciplines. I like generalists and renaissance men.

The author makes an argument for three ideas whose “time has come.” Universal Basic Income, or “giving free money to everyone,” solves poverty and allows people to transition to a future of robots replacing human work. The 15-hour workweek allows us to face a future of massive unemployment—again, because of robots doing our work. So, for example, my full-time librarian job would be split among two people, both part time. After all, the dream of robots has always been more leisure time for humans, right? So why are we working more than ever? And lastly, all countries should open their borders to everyone who wants to come in. The author believes this solves world poverty and increases the income more than anything imaginable—the statistics he shows are quite stunning.

Phantom Limbs

I have had an e-reader for years but I rarely purchase any e-books. I find plenty of e-books available through KPL's Overdrive and Hoopla services. I use the new Libby app from Overdrive to search for my books, place holds, and transfer them to my device. Recently, I borrowed Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner and I've been thinking about it ever since I finished reading it. This profound story about loss, love, and friendship, has affected me deeply and I'm so glad I stumbled across it via my Overdrive browsing. Otis and Meg were inseparable best friends, and first loves, until Otis' brother tragically dies. Otis is forced to move on without Meg in his life but he has never quite forgotten her. Like a phantom limb, the pains of his losses are always there. Suddenly, Meg resurfaces and as you'd figure, makes his life much more complicated than he'd planned. As Meg and Otis work through their new proximity to each other, the secondary characters make this well-written book all the more interesting. I don't think anyone who reads it would soon forget it. And anyone who's suffered the loss of a loved one, will see themselves and others through the characters here. Everyone processes loss in their own way and we are never the same again once we've lost someone or something that we loved deeply.   

We don't yet have this title in print at KPL's Teen Central but we will soon. In the meantime, you can borrow it from KPL's Overdrive service on many e-formats.

Hey Harry, Hey Matlida

The charming novel Hey Harry, Hey Matilda, formatted as a series of back and forth email messages between twins Harry and Matilda, will delight readers who like their doses of bourgeoisie torment mitigated by witty sarcasm and pithy observations about thirty-something anxiety. Matilda is the zany, unfiltered twin who cannot seem to maintain a meaningful, long-term relationship and who laments her narrowing career opportunities, clinging to the desire to live the "authentic" life of an "artist". It is revealed early on in the book that Matilda has told her current boyfriend that her twin brother has died, a childish fib that not unsurprisingly leads to Matlida’s increasingly erratic correspondence. Harry, a literature professor and the more seemingly self-assured and conventionally situated sibling, finds trouble when he begins to date a younger student at the university. Hey Harry, Hey Matilda is a fun, imaginative and quick read that was originally unfurled on author Rachel Hulin’s Instagram account before it was published earlier this year.