Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.


“Stars are everywhere. Not just in the sky. Look . . .” Beginning and ending with looking for stars in the night sky, in between are other times and places to find stars. You can cut out a star and put it in your pocket, you can put it on the end of a wand and hope to see a wish come true, there are stars in dandelions and moss and snowflakes.

In Stars, Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee have created a beautiful, thoughtful, poignant picture book. Even if you don’t have preschoolers in your life, you should take a look at this book.



It is our Nation’s heart and soul

Kadir Nelson is my favorite illustrator and now he has illustrated and written a new book! I especially like his historical portraits. In Heart and Soul he writes about the lives that belong with his expressive faces, some of them fictional and some of them biographical, but all of them speak to me. They tell stories of injustice, unfair laws and the struggles and determination it took to rally against them. 

 Heart and Soul: the Story of America and African Americans is very nicely done in an old storytelling style that says "that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of it's weight in gold. It is our Nation’s heart and soul."


Heart and Soul: the story of America and African Americans

Best American Comics

I typically prefer novels over short stories. I like to sink my teeth into a story and chew on it for a while. However, sometimes I’ll read anthologies of short stories, to get some ideas about new (to me) authors, whose novels I might like to read.

Sometimes I’ll pick up an annual Best American Comics for the same reason -- to be exposed to some new graphic novelists.  Series editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden choose a guest editor each year, who picks some 25-30 graphic novel excerpts or comic strips to be included. Some strips are chosen from “online only” comics; some are published in traditional print fashion. Best American Comics 2011, published this fall, was edited by Alison Bechdel, one of my favorite cartoonists.

Check it out, but don’t stop there. If you’re intrigued by a strip, find more works by your favorite artists from among almost 3500 titles held by KPL!


Best American Comics


Pumpkin Eye

Don’t you love the cover of this Halloween book? Denise Fleming’s artwork in all of her books is so rich and vibrant...and this nighttime sky is the perfect background for the pumpkins and creatures.

Pumpkin Eye is a great choice for pre-schoolers: the slightly scary mood balanced by costumed friends and deliciously descriptive words. It’s such a fun Halloween treat!


Pumpkin Eye

A New History of the Papacy

I was turned on to the history of the papacy through my college art history classes.  It is simply impossible to separate the stories of some of the great European artists from the happenings of their contemporary leaders of the Catholic Church.  When I heard about John Julius Norwich’s new book, Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy, I immediately put a hold on it.  Norwich gives us a chronological history of the popes (and antipopes) throughout the two thousand year history of the church, detailing many of their endeavors and challenges such as struggles with secular rulers, church reforms, family scandals, monumental building projects, and much more.  The earliest popes, of whom there remains little information, have rather short sections dedicated to them while some of the most influential popes receive much greater discussion.

When I think about Pope Benedict XVI or Pope John Paul II, I have a hard time imagining them leading armies of soldiers in order to conquest new regions of Italy as Pope Julius II did, or holding romping parties at the Vatican as Pope Alexander VI did for his daughter Lucrezia.  (Wait, did you catch that…daughter of a pope…that’s not supposed to happen!  For another interesting read though, take a look at Lucrezia Borgia’s biography.)  These two late 15th to early 16th century popes fall in Norwich’s chapter titled The Monsters.  What is evident from the book, though, is that the number of popes who took on this position in hopes of genuinely spreading the Word of Christ and making the world a better place, far outnumbers those who saw it as simply a position of wealth and power.  But this task is not a simple one and the political upheaval that the popes were often involved in could be debilitating.

I appreciate Norwich’s work for its broad coverage of people and events.  In understanding the evolution of the papacy and how it has become what it is today we must first recognize the influence of people outside of Rome such as the emperors of the Byzantine Empire and the Cistercian abbot St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as well as the political climate of places such as 14th century Avignon.  Norwich does not limit his discussion to just those who have been elected to the papacy but also grants discussion to the number of antipopes who have tried to get their hands on the papal tiara over the years and the myth that there was once a female pope named Joan.  Pope Joan, myth tells us, disguised herself as a man and made an illustrious career for herself in Rome before being unanimously voted pope.  Her disguise was apparently given away when she gave birth to a child one day when mounting a horse for a papal procession.  An interesting discussion, it seems unlikely that Pope Joan ever truly existed.  What seems even more unlikely, though, is that she could have given birth to a child while mounting a horse!

All in all, this is a very interesting book.  You can read just the chapters you find most interesting, or you can read the book in its entirety.  The stories of these men (and possibly one woman!) will shed new light on this illustrious position that you are sure to find captivating.


Absolute Monarchs: a history of the papacy
Elysha Cloyd

Up North: a path to freedom

Some men took their families; some left them behind hoping to send for them later. They left for uncertain futures afraid of what they might find. They left the cotton fields, tobacco, corn and beans behind. They left because they heard that there were jobs, nice homes, food for the family and no Klan.

The Great Migration: Journey to the North is a book of poems and short stories that tell about strength, hope and determination that causes people to survive. Eloise Greenfield showed that you can say very little to still say a lot.


The Great Migration: Journey to the North

Ten Years Later -- Remembering 9/11

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



Love Part 11: Dante says Love is a Circle

Like Johnny Cash, Dante thinks love is a ring, a circle, a sphere. He depicts love literally as a circle turning the cosmos, powering the world; it's at the center; love makes the world go 'round:

“The nature of the universe which holds the centre quiet, and moves all the rest around it, begins here as from its starting-point. And this heaven has no otherwhere than the Divine Mind, wherein is kindled the love that revolves it, and the virtue which it rains down. Light and love enclose it with one circle, even as it does the others, and of that cincture He who girds it is the sole Intelligence.” And “On that Point Heaven and all nature are dependent. Look on that circle…its motion is so swift because of the burning love whereby it is spurred.”

And, talking about love and the Virgin Mary:

“And when the brightness and the magnitude of the living star, which up there conquers as it conqured here below, were depicted in both my eyes, from within the mid heavens a torch, formed in a circle in fashion of a crown, descended and engirt her [Virgin Mary], and revolved around her.Whatever melody sounds sweetest here below…would seem a cloud.” “I am Angelic Love, and I circle round the lofty joy which breathes from out the womb which was the hostelry of our Desire…Thus the circling melody sealed itself.”

And at end of his creeping and crawling through hell and heaven, Dante concludes:

“O abundant Grace, whereby I presumed to fix my look through Eternal Light…I saw that in its depth is enclosed, bound up with love in one volume, that which is dispersed in leaves through the universe…that of which I speak is one simple Light” and “the lofty Light appeared to me three circles of three colors” and “my desire and my will were revolved, like a wheel which is moved evenly, by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.”

The Divine Comedy has been called the “summa in verse,” i.e. Aquinas in epic poetry, for good reason. The actual ideas are not original, but the portrayal--the story, the images, the symbolism--is new. Literature is great for this. Aquinas’s doctrine is oozing at the cracks; but it is filled with Aristotle, and the bible, and Saints, Achilles, and various history political figures—all which makes me really appreciate anew how the history of Western thought is connected even more than I thought. This really is a "great conversation." The Divine Comedy has also been called an encyclopedia, which back then meant “circle of knowledge.” Like an encyclopedia, the narrative was meant to be educational on the topics of science (Aristotle), metaphysics and theology, politics (he was writing it as a political exile, which reminds me of Machiavelli), and ethics. Also, like a circle, the narrative begins at one point, goes through hell-purgatory-heaven, and ends at the same point with a new perspective.

Loving well and loving the right things is an art that requires wisdom; this has come up many times. Love is like wax, says God to Dante in purgatory--"the wax be good," "but not every seal is good although the wax is good." The wax is love, which is naturally perfect. The seal is how we use that love, what we attach it to. But Dante responds that, if love does not come from us, how can we be free? “For if love be offered to us from without, and if the soul go not with other foot, it is not her own [the soul’s] merit if she go strait or crooked.” Are we pulled around by love desires, slaves of passion, as Hume would say? God responds no, there is “free will,” an “innate liberty;” the “virtue that counsels,” which “gathers in and windows good and evil loves”—“in you exists the power to restrain it.”

Remember that for Plato, Aristotle and Epictetus, love was a matter of wisdom and knowledge first and foremost—you have to figure out what to love before you can love. Dante says “for the good, inasmuch as it is good, so soon as it is understood, kindles love.” First comes understanding, then comes love. This is very different from simply having a disposition to love everything, whether good or not. This is a picky and choosy love, one that says “this is good” but “that’s not good.” However, we could wonder, how many times are we wrong about what is good? How many times are we wrong about what we should not love?  And what if our “philosophical arguments” and our “authority” figures (Dantes’ sources) are wrong? How does our love suffer? And how should we correct it now, before it's too late?

Related Posts
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 


The Divine Comedy

Everything Is Its Own Reward

Not everyone was amused when the San Francisco Chronicle began running Paul Madonna’s feature called “All Over Coffee” in early 2004. For those who were looking for the traditional cartoons and comic strips, Madonna’s work was not the least bit funny.

A one hundred and eighty degree departure from the ubiquitous newspaper “funnies,” readers were taken on a pen-and-ink tour of San Francisco’s architectural landscape, mixed with witty and sometimes eccentric bits of integrated text. Clearly some did not get it, but others relished this fresh new approach. By 2007, Madonna’s much heralded work had filled a coffee table book, aptly titled All Over Coffee.


Fast-forward four more years and we’re treated to a second batch of Madonna’s sepia tone and watercolor drawings. Everything Is Its Own Reward captures street corners, lamp posts, back alleys, telephone wires, stark landscapes and random bits of architecture in seemingly suspended animation, as if all forms of animal and human life had vanished. Yet strangely enough the human element is still very much present in his drawings, evidenced by the author’s bits of brief (ok, sometimes long and prophetically rambling) textual commentary.


“Does the smell of the air today
remind you of another time?

Inhale through your nose.
And the next time a day like this comes around
you’ll be transported back to now.”

The video here is from Paul Madonna’s talk at the Booksmith bookstore in San Francisco last month. Madonna talks about his new book and gives insight into his creative process. The visuals are rough but the underlying story is fascinating.

Everything Is Its Own Reward is an interesting and thought-provoking visual journey.


Everything Is Its Own Reward

Brunelleschi's Engineering Marvel

There are many churches in the city of Florence, Italy but the most grand and elaborate of these is Santa Maria del Fiore.  The thing that makes this cathedral so amazing is its’ dome.  As a matter of fact, there are many people that refer to the church as il Duomo, “the dome”.  This church and one of the architects that worked on it are the main subjects of Ross King’s book Brunelleschi's Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore began being built in 1296.  Seventy years later, in 1366, the guild of artists in Florence commissioning this vast structure held a competition for the design of the dome.  It was common for guilds to hold these types of competitions among artists in the Middle Ages.  It may seem irresponsible to us today, but it was also common to commence major building projects before there was a plan for how the entire structure would be built.  This was the instance in 14th century Florence; building had gone on for 70 years without a plan for the dome.  The winner of the 1366 competition for the plan for the dome was named Neri di Fioravanti.  His dome was to be the largest ever built.  Vaulting for the dome (that is the actual start of the dome where the walls begin curving inwards as they are built up) would begin at an unprecedented height of 170 feet, and once completed it would stand almost 300 feet tall.  The dome was to span 143 feet.  If you want to put this in perspective, stand in the center of the rotunda in the lower level of central library and look up towards the prism.  From the lower level to the ceiling of the library it is a height of 87 feet and 4 inches. The dome in Florence is almost three and half times taller!

This plan was venerated and celebrated as building continued for half a century.  But in 1418, the guild was forced to hold another competition.  You see, Fiorvanti’s plan had been accepted but he had never indicated how it was intended to be built.  Another surprising idea for us modern day thinkers…  Most domes in this time period were built with centering.  This was most often wooden scaffolding that would hold up the construction pieces during their placement and while their mortar dried.  It would be impossible, though, to build wooden scaffolding high and sturdy enough for this dome.  Another apparent method of centering was to fill the area of the church underneath were the dome was to be with dirt.  The dome could then be built with the support of the earth beneath it.  Imagine the time and manpower it would take to mound dirt 300 feet high to build the duomo and then having to remove all of that dirt once it was finished!

The person this book is about is the architect who solved this gargantuan problem, Filippo Brunelleschi.  In 1418 he developed a plan of building the dome without centering and became the new master mason of the church building project.  Through war, sickness, and grating Florentine politics the dome was erected over the next 30 years.  It continues to be an architectural marvel today.  One of the neat things about this dome is that it has two shells, an inner and an outer shell.  Today tourists can climb the stairs (which were built and used by the workers as the dome was being constructed) between the two shells all the way to the lantern at the top of the dome for a view of the city of Florence unlike any other.  On the way to the top, you can see and feel the very architectural elements the author of the book explains. 

The Duomo continues to stand as a majestic and magnificent structure in Florence today.  Author Ross King does an excellent job describing the difficulties with building such a vast structure in his book and the ingenious ways Brunelleschi goes about dealing with these issues.  Anyone who may be interested in Renaissance history, art and architecture, or engineering will find this book appealing.  If you are like me, you will also find yourself in awe of the Duomo and the man who built it.


Brunelleschi's Dome
Elysha Cloyd
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