Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
The first four cars I owned were all made in the 1960s. I liked how they looked, especially my little 1967 olive green Mustang that had a black vinyl top. I was reminded of 1960s cars when I looked at 'Road Hogs,' a book we received just last month. In this volume, Eric Peters includes not only good photographs but also reprints of ads and specifications for cars made in the 1960s and 1970s. I wouldn't want to go back to the level of technology available during those years, but I did get nostalgic when I saw the pictures in this book. For a look at the car culture of two important automotive decades, 'Road Hogs' is a fine addition to the KPL collection.
Road hogs : Detroit's big beautiful luxury performance cars of the 1960s and 1970s
Set against a backdrop of 1980s New York City, when crime-rates were high and rents were low, and the obscure and counterintuitive straight edge punk rock scene; Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, is a vivid depiction of the passion of youth and the complexities of life and situation that can turn us humans on a dime and send our futures spinning in a new directions. I was drawn to this book by the music. Being a long time, punk rock icon, Ian Mackaye fan; I was always intrigued by the straight edge scene that zealously renounced drugs, drinking, sex, meat, ect., yet slam danced itself to a pulp to the most assaultive music available. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover in Ten Thousand Saints a novel with unforgettable characters, all of whom are realistically imperfect, flawed, and troubled, but who are treated with such compassion and care by the author that you really cannot stop reading until you discover their fates. A great debut that will leave you waiting to see what Henderson produces next.
Ten Thousand Saints
Jane McGonigal's recent nonfiction book Reality Is Brokenargues that video games have become overwhelmingly popular because real life is so dull and awful, that by comparison the virtual world of the game is far more appealing. Ernest Cline grabs hold of that idea and runs a long way in his debut novel Ready Player One. A love letter to 1980's pop culture thinly disguised as a dystopian science-fiction novel, Ready Player One is crammed so full of references to things like Max Headroom, Pat Benatar, Back to the Future, and Monty Python that it's hard to believe it holds up as a story, let alone an enjoyable one. The near-continual 80's references may bewilder readers too young to have lived through them the first time around (or worse, infuriate those who did live through them), but once you get past the 80's fanboy love, Ready Player One is a hilarious geek adventure with a warm heart.
Like almost everyone else on earth, 18-year-old Wade Watts spends all of his waking life plugged into the OASIS, a virtual reality game so lifelike that the real world seems drab by comparision. And for good reason- The year is 2044, and the real world is a horrible place. Food is scarce, energy is ridiculously expensive, the environment is trashed, and crime and poverty are widespread. Wade lives with his aunt in a squalid trailer park so overcrowded that the trailers are stacked up by the dozens like makeshift skyscrapers. Orphaned after his mother dies of a drug overdose and his father is shot dead while looting food during a power outage, Wade escapes to the OASIS for school, recreation, and a sense of purpose: James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, left a treasure worth 240 billion dollars hidden deep inside, locked away behind three 80's-themed puzzles so difficult that millions of players have been unable to figure out the first one after years of searching. Like the rest of humanity, Wade is on the hunt. Wade and his fellow hunters are the sworn enemies of the IOI Corporation, whose army of gamers is also on the hunt in order to take control of the OASIS for their own nefarious purposes. And then, one day, Wade finds the first key. When the rest of the world finds out, the story becomes a fast-paced treasure hunt with Wade and his nerd friends racing to find the rest of the keys before IOI does. It won't be easy, though, especially after Wade discovers that IOI won't stop at merely killing egg-hunting players in the virtual world.
Along the way, Cline gives us a few glimpses of the hellhole that the real world has become, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, we can make things better if we just step out of the game for a while. It's not a perfect book, but it's a fun book and worth reading just for the enjoyment of playing spot-the-80's-reference.
Ready player one : a novel
While studying sociology at the University of Chicago, Sudhir Venkatesh started hanging out with J.T. the leader of a gang located in a housing project on the south side of Chicago near the campus. When he first arrived at the University of Chicago, he was told by many people where he should and should not go in order to be safe in the neighborhoods around campus. Curiosity got to him and he ventured into the non-recommended areas. After many visits without incident, he decides to do some fieldwork in the area, bringing surveys to find out what the residents' lives are like in these poverty-stricken neighborhoods. This leads to his first harrowing encounter with the Black Kings and eventually to meeting their leader J.T. who is impressed by Venkatesh's persistence and agrees to let him observe some of what he does as a gang leader.
Venkatesh recounts his experiences in Gang Leader for a Day, detailing how the gang functions within its community. It's surprising how much the gang's organization mirrors that of a major corporation, complete with a board of directors. It was also interesting to find out that the higher ups in the gang discourage violence, because it scares customers away from their main business, dealing drugs. Along these same lines, a gang may stir up violence in another gang's territory to disrupt their rival's drug business.
Like Freakonomics, where I first heard about Venkatesh's work, Gang Leader for a Day is full of stories and observations that will capture your interest.
Gang Leader for a Day
Ever since I heard Susan Casey (the author) interviewed by Jon Stewart, and surfer Laird Hamilton (the book’s real-life character) grilled by Stephen Colbert, I knew that The Wave: in pursuit of rogues, freaks and giants of the ocean was a must-read for me.
While vacationing in Southern California or parts of Southwest Mexico, I remember encountering some 10 to 15 foot waves. For a good swimmer (which I consider myself as being), these don’t appear too daunting or intimidating. But they can and do come in succession of three or more at a time. If one knocks you down, another one is sure to quickly follow and it can be difficult to catch your breath and equilibrium by the time the next wave arrives. I remember meeting a particularly nasty little set of waves off the Malibu coast, that produced such a tremendous force that they left me completely discombobulated, disheveled, and practically disrobed! I was barely able to keep my bathing suit on as I struggled to swim. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I now appreciate what wiser Pacific Coast beach residents say, “Never, ever turn your back on a wave.”
In this tautly structured page turner, author Susan Casey examines giant, no make that humongous monster waves from three points of view:
- — The scientific by interviewing wave scientists who study them;
- — The practical by talking to mariners who have come across them in their voyages, and;
- — The playful/suicidal by spending time with the adrenaline junky extreme surfers who travel the world searching out these behemoths in the hopes of catching a ride, chief among them being Laird Hamilton.
At one time not so long ago, reports of 100 foot waves encountered by ships were dismissed by the scientific community based on the belief that such phenomena are counter to the theories of ocean physics. However, it turned out that it was the theories that should have been dismissed and not the reports, after a British research ship chock full of scientists ran into a North Sea storm about 10 years ago. Its research data collection equipment documented 90+ foot waves, and the existence of the giant wave phenomenon was confirmed. Later on, tracking satellites were able to determine that these rogue waves appear consistently and with greater frequency than was previously thought across all oceans.
This is also a story of personal obsessions, and some might say death wishes. These descriptors of course refer to the extreme surfers who seek out the rogues in an attempt to achieve hang-ten heaven. To gain their perspectives, Casey tags along with premier surfer Laird Hamilton, as he jet-sets across the globe in pursuit of this dream.
But watch out while reading this book! Because just like a strong rip current, Casey’s tale will easily pull you in, and before long you’ll find yourself powerless to resist this great watery read.
The Wave: in pursuit of rogues, freaks and giants of the ocean
This haunting and beautifully written novel left me wondering if Rachel finds peace, happiness and herself. Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black soldier, becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy. Her strict African American grandmother, who lives in a mostly black community, becomes her guardian. Rachel’s blue eyes, light-brown skin and beauty bring attention her way as she struggles with her identity. Durrow explores the issues of racial identity–like does a bi-racial child identity more strongly with one race or another? The Girl Who Fell from the Sky is a winner of the Bellwether Prize which recognizes fiction that addresses issues of social justice. I love a book when the author can generate a strong emotional feeling and this certainly did it for me.
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
Toni Morrison used a collection of photographs taken during the struggle to integrate schools to tell a story of hope, triumph and survival. The 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education segregation case embodied a turbulent time in American history and what better way to tell its story than through its pictures. Unlike Toni Morrison’s other books Remember: the Journey to School Integration is a pictorial collection for children and it will mean different things to different people. But the picture that means the most to me was taken from a New York Times May 18, 1954 article that blared High Court Bans School Segregation; 9-to-0 Decision Grants Time to Comply. And on the opposite page is a picture of the nine Supreme Court judges that did away with the 1896 Separate but Equal ruling.
Remember: The Journey to School Integration
I was doing my morning stretches and listening to NPR, when the news came on. I remember the feel of that September day—sunny, blue skies, warm with no humidity – just like the weather in New York City. I know whom I called, what we said, what I did the rest of that day. And I remember which books I read over the years, to help me make sense of the event.
We each have our own memories of September 11, 2001. KPL has many books and movies that express individual experiences of that day, fictionalized accounts, analytical perspectives. Here are some to consider, as we commemorate the tenth anniversary:
Before & After stories from New York. Thomas Beller, editor
(Many authors tell stories of New York City, before and after the attacks. This anthology includes local author Bryan Charles’ moving account of the agonizingly long descent down a Tower staircase, after the attack.)
Reluctant Hero : a 9/11 Survivor Speaks Out about that Unthinkable Day, What he's Learned, How he's Struggled, and What no one should ever Forget , by Michael Benfante.
(Benfante’s experience of the descent included stopping at the 68th floor to offer help to a woman in a wheelchair. He and a co-worker carried her down 68 flights to safety, emerging minutes before the building exploded. The media turned Benfante into an instant hero, but in the years following, he wrestled with private anguish, depression and alcoholism.)
9-11 : Emergency Relief , Chris Pitzer, editor.
(Several graphic novelists joined together to chronicle their experiences of the day. I didn't own a TV on 9/11, so unlike many others, I didn't view thousands of devastating images of the attacks and their aftermath. This book made 9-11 'real' for me, somehow.)
Arab in America
El Rassi, Toufic.
(El Rassi’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel gave an honest account of life in the United States growing up as an Arab-American, post 9/11.)
9-11 : emergency relief
My friends who farm make magic happen. From tiny seeds, some akin to grains of sand, beautiful & delicious plants grow, living organisms that nourish me and provide me with energy to walk and bike and work at the library. Some of my farming friends are also food alchemists.
I recently had the privilege of tasting pickled turnips. Though indeed beautiful and nutritious, I won’t say that they were delicious – they are turnips, after all – but rather that they were strangely compelling. Made with just 5 ingredients: turnips, dill, garlic, salt, and water, they underwent lactic fermentation and were transformed into something approaching sublimity. I started with a pint, and just a day later it was half gone.
If this brief blog post has your mouth watering or your curiosity percolating, you might want to check out Preserving food without freezing or canning by Deborah Madison. It’s a book that will imbue you with the knowledge necessary to create similar culinary masterpieces.
Preserving food without freezing or canning : traditional techniques using salt, oil, sugar, alcohol, vinegar, drying, cold storage, and lactic fermentation
Check out Montaigne's rant against sexual love: "Love is nothing else but the thirst of enjoying the object desired...the pleasure of discharging one's vessels...and when I consider the ridiculous titillation of this pleasure, the absurd, crack-brained, wild motions with which it inspires...I then believe it to be true as Plato says, that the gods made man for their sport.”
Now, he does think love, and marriage, and falling in love is a little silly, but he’s not really ranting against love per se; he just thinks that the love between men and women should be more like friendship. Agreeing with Aristotle, he says that marriage should not be about desire and beauty; they should have a “more solid and constant foundation” and “should proceed with greater circumspection.”
“A good marriage, if there be any such, rejects the company and conditions of love, and tries to represent those of friendship. ‘Tis a sweet society of life, full of constancy, trust, and an infinite number of useful and solid services.”
Friendship and Soul-Mates
Again like Aristotle, Montaigne thinks that friendship between two men is the pinacle of love. But he goes much further. Friendship is the “mixing” of two souls, “one soul in two bodies.” Unlike marriage, where “there almost always happens a thousand intricacies in it to unravel,” with friendship the only “business” is “itself.” “Perfect” friendships “are fortified and confirmed by judgment and length of time…They mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined”…“all this guided by virtue, and all this by the conduct of reason.”
Like our modern version of “soul-mates,” Montaigne’s BFF’s are meant to be—“I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met”—and you can only have one; it “possesses the whole soul, and there…cannot possibly admit of a rival.” However, as Aristotle said, good luck finding even one: “one alone is the hardest thing in the world to find.” Montaigne also talks about how this obsesson with finding a best friend has made his “ordinary friendships” “cold and shy,” because he only wants to go “full sail.” Of course, it must be mentioned that the reason women (man-woman frienships for example) are left out of his model is sexism, along with his idea that marriages between men and women are too complicated (“thousand intricacies”).
And, just like the boy St. Augustine was ruined when his best friend died, the old man Montaigne suffers at the loss of his only friend:
“I have only led a languishing life; and the very pleasures that present themselves to me, instead of administering anything of consolation, double my affliction for his loss. We were halves throughout, and to that degree, that methinks, by outliving him, I defraud him of his part…I am no more than half of myself.”
In a perfect world, you would love everyone in the word, equally. But, says Montaigne, reminding me of Aquinas, in reality you were born next to people; you should love those who are geographically close to you:
“We must moderate and adapt our desires to the nearest and easiest to be acquired things. Is it not a foolish humour of mine to separate myself from a thousand to whom my fortune has conjoined me…and cleave to one or two who are out of my intercourse; or, rather a fantastic desire of a thing I cannot obtain?"
Aquinas said the same thing, and he’s describing a problem that many of us have. We think that people thousands of miles away are somehow different, more lovable, nicer. We shun those close and replace them with ideas of people that are far away. We do this with places especially. If only I could live in Hawaii! If only I lived in the 1500’s!
Last thing I'll mention: We should love our children, says Montaigne, but even more we should love the children of our mind—“the issue of our understanding, courage, and abilities, springs from nobler parts than those of the body…these cost us a great deal more and bring us more honour.”
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love
Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius
Love Part 5: Plotinus
Love Part 6: the Buddha
Love Part 7: Christian Love
Love Part 8: Augustine
Love Part 9: Martin Luther King, Jr
Love Part 10: Aquinas
Love Part 11: Dante
Love Part 12: a Real Love Letter
Love Part 13: Chaucer
Love Part 14: Hobbes
Love Part 15: Machiavelli
How to Live or a Life of Montaigne