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Staff Picks: Books

Lucky Penny

Penny’s life is a mess. She’s living out of her friend’s storage unit, and working for a 12-year-old tyrant at a laundromat. When she’s not attempting to rescue cats from mean kids in the neighborhood, she’s reading fantasy romance novels, and working on a real life awkward romance of her own. Lucky Penny, by creators Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota, is a quirky romantic comedy, and also my new favorite graphic novel at the moment.

It reads like a cross between the epic Scott Pilgrim series and the super twee web cartoon Bee and Puppycat. It’s adorable, funny, and unabashedly nerdy. I enjoyed it immensely, and you probably will too, so check it out already!


Of Fire and Stars

I love a good, fun fantasy. The world building in Audrey Coulthurst’s debut novel, Of Fire and Stars, is thorough and interesting, as is the character development. Right from the start we are introduced to a girl who discovers she has an Affinity for fire, and while parts of the world are accepting of that, she’s already betrothed to the prince of a kingdom that believes magic use to be heretical. What gives this story a great twist is the romance that blossoms between our protagonist and the sister of her betrothed. I found it refreshing and interesting to read a world where their priorities were flipped - the main challenge of these two women being together wasn’t that they were both women, but that one was betrothed to the other’s brother. Oh, and she can use magic, which is kind of a big deal. Especially when magic-users might be involved in an assassination (or two). There were so many layers to this fantasy, and each one made me want more, even days after finishing the book.


Level Up Your Classroom

Many people understand how compelling games can be – just look at how much time people spend playing games in all their formats! What if the qualities that motivate people to come back again and again to the games they love could be utilized to maximize motivation to construct learning? Level Up Your Classroom: The Quest to Gamify Your Lessons and Engage Your Students, by Jonathan Cassie, answers these questions:
• What happens to student learning when it is gamified?
• Why would I want to gamify instruction for my students?
• How do I do this?
While game-based learning, using specific games to help kids learn, can be useful, this book is not only about that. Rather, the big idea here is to identify and learn to utilize the attributes that make games so compelling in order to facilitate learning. Cassie posits that understanding and recognizing the fundamental properties of games allow teachers to use those properties to facilitate learning.
Here is an accessible and practical book with many access points for gamifying your classroom. If you are a game fanatic but don’t know how to incorporate gamification into teaching (or parenting) this is the book for you. If you don’t identify as a gamer yet you recognize there might be some value in gameplay for your students, this book could be... yep, you guessed it, a game-changer.


A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings

Of the 100 buildings pictured and discussed in this 2015 book, only nine are in the United States, the closest to Kalamazoo being Mies van de Rohe's 1945-1951 Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Hence, this is quite an international volume. The chapters are Pioneers, Rhetoric (Building with a Message), Sacred, Urban Visions, Big and Beautiful, Material Matters, and Lost and Found. I wonder if the wonderful O'Connor/Houghton volume on Kalamazoo buildings gave Mr. Cruickshank the idea for this last chapter title? Excellent photography and concise commentaries are present in each entry. I particularly enjoyed the one on the Stockholm, Sweden, Public Library. There are photos of both exterior and interior, including the central reading room, of which the author says, 'The white walls reflect light down onto the desks below, making the tall cylindrical room the epitome of intellectual enlightenment.' This is truly a spectacular building, along with the other 99 included herein.


Muhammad Ali unfiltered

Filled with intimate color and black and white photos, Muhammad Ali unfiltered is a pictorial tribute to The Champ's life and legacy. My favorite pictures in the book are one of him running behind his children in a stroller on a hill and the telegram he sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. who was jailed in Birmingham. If you want to see more like this, check out the book, and appreciate this legend all over again.


Miss Jane

From Miss Jane by Brad Watson:

“She was born into that time and place, in the farmland cut from the pine and broadleaf woods of east-central Mississippi, 1915, when there was no possibility of doing anything to alleviate her condition, no medical procedure to correct it. It was something to be accepted, grim-faced, as they accepted crop failure, debt, poverty, the frequent deaths of infants and small children from fevers and other maladies.”

The novel Miss Jane is a beautifully-written character study of a girl born alone in every way—an odd duck in a family worn down by hardship, alienated from society due to the unique nature of her disability and in no small part to simple geography. She is alone save for the paternal kindness of a country doctor. But there is something about Jane Chisolm, something deep inside, that allows her to connect with nature and build a meaningful life in solitary. I can’t say enough about this book; Brad Watson writes with empathy for his heroine, an empathy that extends out to all of us experiencing the human condition. Using beautiful descriptions of nature to foster tone and atmosphere in the novel, Watson creates a striking sensory experience that propels Miss Jane to the forefront of great contemporary fiction.


Cat Rackham

Cat Rackham is a cat. Specifically, Cat Rackham is a cat with a lot of issues. Depression? He's got it. Existential dread? Same. Self-doubt? Yes. On the other hand he's also got a nifty green t-shirt, a squishy tuft of hair, and a friend in exuberant, speech-impedimented Jeremy Squirrel, but aside from that he's still pretty much a mess. Mostly wordless, each Cat Rackham vignette in this collection illustrates the poor feline's coping with life's difficulties, with varying degrees of success. Originally published as an infrequent online comic, Cat Rackham is a more-or-less literal embodiment of creator Steve Wolfhard's personal struggles with depression, along with a love of cats and a desire to entertain. Wolfhard's day job as a storyboard artist and animator for sorta-for-kids-although-maybe-not-I-don't-know cartoon Adventure Time shows through, with blobby character designs and a morbid sense of humor dominating each page. If you're struggling, if you like cats, or both, maybe Cat Rackham can help. Or not. He's having a hard time himself.


A Feast for the Eyes

I can't speak to quality or accuracy of the recipes contained in the following books, but the photos in these cookbooks, all published in 2016, will certainly leave your stomach growling!

Samarkand: Recipes & Stories from Central Asia & the Caucasus


Summers Under the Tamarind Tree: Recipes & Memories from Pakistan


Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan

Bowl: Vegetarian Recipes for Ramen, Pho, Bibimbap, Dumplings, and Other One-Dish Meals


The Love and Lemons Cookbook: An Apple-to-Zucchini Celebration of Impromptu Cooking


Koreatown: A Cookbook

Modern Potluck: Beautiful Food to Share

The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen

Marbled, Swirled, and Layered: 150 Recipes and Variations for Artful Bars, Cookies, Pies, Cakes, and More

Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Crusts, Fillings, and Life

Dorie's Cookies

Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas
*Not exactly a cookbook, but consider it your digestif to this visual meal.


American Nations

Could the cultural values of the different European immigrants that first immigrated to what we now call the United States still be affecting our election results? Colin Woodard thinks so. He breaks the country up into eleven regional cultures, but he sees most of political history as a conflict between Yankeedom, descendants of the Pilgrims and Puritans; and the Deep South, immigrants from the British colony Barbados that landed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1670. In American Nations, Woodard tells the history of the arrival and expansion of these different groups and how they have aligned and broken apart through the next four centuries.


The most fascinating part for me was the Revolutionary War section which showed that the colonies were in no way united about whether or why to start a revolution.


Towers Falling

I remember how nice the day was. How I didn’t want to go to school. I remember being bored in my Focus on Freshman class when the assistant principal ran, red faced and huffing, into the classroom, handed our teacher a piece of paper, and then ran out. I remember the whole class asking if we were on lockdown, if there was an active shooter in our school, or in the high school across town. I remember the teacher struggling with how to explain what had just happened to a bunch of 9th graders. I remember thinking the world was about to change.

It’s hard to imagine that something that happened not that long ago, something I can still remember so vividly, could be a foreign concept to someone else. In Towers Falling, fifth grader Dèja Barnes wonders how something that happened before she was born could have to do with her. How could this bit of history, something that happened 15 years ago, have any impact on her now? The story follows her as she realizes that 9/11 may have happened before she was born, but the effects have touched everyone around her, and ripple outward to affect her life in ways she did not previously understand. This book does such a fabulous job of showing how we are all connected through our small communities that build outward and how we’re all connected as Americans to 9/11 and how history is never something that exists only in the past tense.