Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

Quit Monkeying Around, Jay Berry!

Wilson Rawls, known for his Where the Red Fern Grows, has written a treasure titled Summer of the Monkeys. I happened on this book one night shift in Teen at Central. It’s the story of Jay Berry Lee, his family, and his blue-tick hound, Rowdy. The family lives on a farm “smack dab in the middle of the Cherokee Nation” in Oklahoma. The time is the late 1800s. Summer of the Monkeys is the story of 14-year-old Jay Berry Lee and his adventures in the bottoms of a river not too far from their homestead. Jay Berry has a younger sister by the name of Daisy, who was born with her right leg “all twisted up”. She walks with a crutch, and has a fairy-world type of imagination that lets her almost forget her leg and its limits on her life.

The Lee family is eking out a living on their farm, but there is not much money left over, and certainly not enough to take Daisy “to the city” where doctors can fix her leg.

Jay Berry comes upon a bunch of monkeys that belong to a circus and who have escaped on account of a train wreck. There is a reward for their return, and Jay Berry immediately sees $$$$ which add up to a rifle of his own, and a new pony.

The author says it much better than I can in this excerpt from the first chapter of his book: “Up until I was fourteen years old, no boy on earth could have been happier. I didn’t have a worry in the world. In fact, I was beginning to think that it wasn’t going to be hard at all for me to grow up. But just when things were really looking good for me, something happened. I got mixed up with a bunch of monkeys and all of my happiness flew right out the window. Those monkeys all but drove me out of my mind.”

Reading Rawls’ story was a real treat. I laughed. Out loud. I cried. Silently. I hope you will enjoy this story of familial loyalty as much as I did.


Summer of the Monkeys

The Dirty Life

Kristin Kimball was a Harvard-educated writer thoroughly entrenched in her East Village life when she had an epiphany while on a farm in Pennsylvania.  Researching for a writing assignment, Kimball had gone to the farm to interview a farmer named Mark, and before she knew what was happening, she was put to work.  The work she did that day changed her and made her realize that she wanted a home, one that she did not have in the city.  Within a few months of her farm visit, Kimball began a relationship with Mark and left the city to start a farm with him.  Kimball’s book, The Dirty Life, chronicles the first year of their lives on Essex Farm in upstate New York.

Recently there’s been no shortage of memoirs written by first-generation farmers seeking a more sustainable, back-to-the-earth lifestyle—believe me, I know, I’ve tried to read them all.  The Dirty Life stands heads above many of the others I’ve read, mainly due to Kimball’s storytelling abilities and the uniqueness of Essex Farm.  Kimball exposes both the brutal, unforgiving work a farm requires, along with Mother Nature’s willingness to take as quickly as she gives; but she is passionate about the work and about the farm she helped create, and that passion translates into a very good read.


The Dirty Life

Why Read? It’s Summertime!!

Recently, I was reading the May/June 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine when an editorial caught my eye. Written by Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief for the magazine, the editorial, titled “Who Can We Count On?” raises several very good questions about reading in general, and specifically, about summertime reading by schoolchildren. These questions are certainly ones that teachers, parents, librarians, and other concerned adults should ponder. Here they are, with some of my own added:

• How many books should one read in a given time frame?

• Should we encourage schoolchildren to read?

• Does reading level (of the reader) really matter?

• Should summer reading schoolchildren be provided with incentives for reaching pre-set reading goals? And, who should set these goals?

• What types of incentives should be offered? (books, burgers, bicycles?)

• Should the number of books read count for anything?

As a librarian in a public library who works almost exclusively with children’s reading habits, I find these questions “right on the money” for insuring success in a summertime reading program or club. At the Kalamazoo Public Library, the summertime reading program for kids begins in early to mid-June, and continues until the last weekend in August. Somewhere close to twelve (12) weeks. The Library offers summer games for children ages birth-entering Kindergarten, for children entering 1st-4th grade, for ‘tweens who are entering grades five through seven, and for teens entering grades eight through graduation. (Don’t worry, adults, there’s a game for you, too!) Each of these games offers incentives at intervals along the way. Each of the children’s games encourages reading books at one’s pre-determined level (usually from the Accelerated Reader program in the schools). Each game encourages reading for a minimum of twenty (20) minutes a day, and also allows for reading at one’s level and for being read aloud to.

This year, incentives and games are going to be more “across the board” than they have been in the past. Readers will earn paperback books, tee shirts, stickers, and colorful beads at pre-set intervals.

Should you bring your child/encourage your child to come to the library this summer and read in one of the games? Absolutely! And, don’t forget to read yourself! What better role model than a reading parent?

Roger Sutton’s editorial concludes with this question: “…creating a second home on the floor of the children’s room…”. Won’t you join me this summer and read, read, read?


Summer Reading

For All the Tea in China

While many of us sip on a bit of Earl Grey with a swirl of honey with our morning scone, others of us inundate the brewed goodness of green tea with ice and lemon.  Regardless of how we imbibe our tea or savor the complex tastes, we likely don't consider how it got to our pots, cups, and glasses.  For All the Tea in China is a journey from England to China and back, chronicling the years that Robert Fortune spent hunting for tea plants in the nether regions of the East.

It wasn't in the locating of the tea plants that made Fortune famous.  It was his acquiring the skill to grow and harvest the tea especially considering its brutally long journey from China to India and finally to arrive in England in a usable condition.  We often take for granted time in our 21st century world of instantaneous gratification, so to even postulate on the process involved in sending seeds and plants from China to England via ship is strange at best.  However, with Fortune's ability to challenge accepted, standard methods of shipping plants, tea was able to arrive in tact, ready to germinate and be further propagated.  His work for the East India Company was invaluable, for sure.

Sarah Rose's style of writing tells the story of Robert Fortune rather than spews the facts related to bringing tea to England.  There are even some nice side stories such as the one related to technologically advanced (for the time) weaponry used in India using only beef or pig fat for greasing the chambers.  (Consider the two main religions of India and how this might be perceived...)

Listen to the serialized BBC version or check KPL's copy on CD.

I've moved on to reading Salt:  A World History by Mark Kurlansky which is not at all as delightfully told but still full of amazing trivia and facts that we often take for granted as we sprinkle our fries gently with little granules of goodness.  Regardless of the style of the book, I always find non-fiction of this sort an amazing way to sprout my knowledge of the historical and contemporary world.


For All the Tea in China

This Boy’s Life: a Memoir

I’m wondering if David Sedaris is secretly going to library school. During his visit to Miller Auditorium on April 5 he had us all scrambling for paper and pen to write down the title and author of a book he was promoting. How often do we get to hear booktalks outside the library?

Tobias Wolff is the author who touches David’s soul and he wants the rest of us to love his books, too. The book David was waving about is The Barracks Thief, which KPL doesn’t yet own. (Yes, we have ordered it). But we do own several other of Wolff’s books. I’m midway through his memoir, This Boy’s Life, and it’s excellent. I’ll read it fast so you can have it next!


This Boy’s Life: a Memoir

Wish it was only imagination...

I was slightly reluctant to blog about this, because it is not uplifting stuff, but this is a part of life that doesn't get talked about a lot and the silence can be excruciating to those that are affected, so I decided to just go for it anyway. An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination isn’t the kind of book you check out for fun, unfortunately -- you check it out because something terrible has happened to you or someone you know. The terrible thing I’m talking about is stillbirth. Recently some close relatives of mine lost their precious baby boy 5 weeks before he was due, and I desperately turned to KPL’s catalog for anything to try to understand what they were going through. There aren’t a ton of books out there on stillbirth, but since it affected my family, I’ve found out that this book is kind of the go-to memoir about the topic…It turned out that these relatives as well as several of their friends had also stumbled upon this book, and they could relate very strongly to what the author, Elizabeth McCracken, went through. Many people I’ve talked to in the past few months know someone that has experienced this type of loss…I wish this wasn’t the case, but if you are in the situation and need something to read while coping with your loss, I recommend this book. KPL also has it in audiobook format, read by the author, which makes it extremely personal and moving.   


An exact replica of a figment of my imagination

Let My People Go

 I recently enjoyed listening to Bruce Feiler's audiobook America's Prophet:  Moses and the American Storyas I commuted back and forth from work.  Many times I wished I was reading it, because there were so many great quotes I wanted to right down.  Feiler uncovers the great influence the story of Moses and ideas from what we call the books of Moses in the Hebrew Bible have had all through the history of the United States.

Feiler finds it fascinating that this story of an oppressed people rising up to liberate themselves has resonated with and provided the inspiration for multiple, disparate groups in the United States from Revolutionary War leaders to African-American slaves to leaders of the feminist, civil rights, and gay rights movements.

A particularly interesting chapter details how abolitionists and those who defended slavery, both used the words of Moses to justify their actions. 

Feiler also points out Moses' connection to the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, and the Supreme Court along with interesting tidbits about Cecil B. DeMille's movie The Ten Commandments.

One thing I hadn't given much thought to was that part of Moses' story is that he never makes it to the Promised Land.  Feiler argues that this part of the story is powerful right along with the liberation story, because it reminds people that it may take several leaders, several generations before the Promised Land is reached.  A loss of a powerful leader does not mean the end of a movement. 

If you are interested in U.S. history or religious history, I highly recommend this insightful and powerful book.


America's Prophet
Steve S

The Coral Thief

Traveling back in time to post Napoleonic Paris of 1815, author Rebecca Stott does a masterful job making us feel that we are there. A recent college graduate from Edinburgh, Daniel Connor, is traveling to Paris for an arranged position with an esteemed biologist. On the way he meets a mysterious, intriguing, and beautiful woman, Lucienne Bernard. She steals not only his heart, but also his fossils of coral, meant as a special gift for his new mentor. Confused and angered, Daniel begins searching Paris for Bernard. What he finds is totally unexpected and life changing.

Stott’s descriptions of this era of political unrest, and Paris in particular, are wonderful, and readers of historical novels will find much to enjoy and savor. Rebecca Stott is also the author of Ghostwalk, an intriguing time travel set in both the present and 17th century England, which is well worth reading.

I listened to the audio version of The Coral Thief. The reader, Simon Prebble, is excellent, and brings added dimensions to an already fascinating story and setting.


The Coral Thief

A Beautiful Place to Die

One of the great things about fiction is the wonderful variety of places and times where you can be transported. I recently listened to Mala Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die and was instantly taken to apartheid South Africa in the 1950s.

A white police captain has been murdered in the small town of Jacob’s Rest, on the border of Mozambique and South Africa. Sent to investigate is Detective Emmanuel Cooper, and he is immediately resented as an outsider from the big city of Johannesburg. Cooper has to cope with an understaffed local police department and officers from Special Branch with their own political agenda, not to mention residents with secrets of their own.

As much a glimpse of apartheid as it is a mystery, this is a promising beginning to a planned series for South African born author Nunn. If you listen to the CD version, the reader does an excellent job, and I guarantee you will be pulled right into the story.


A Beautiful Place to Die

Fur Person Tales

Weeks ago, a friend’s dog went missing in Mattawan. Many days later, he opened the gate and entered the back yard at another friend’s home in Kalamazoo. This sweet dog had lived there five years previously; in between, he lived two other places! Samuel was much thinner, and his pads were worn, but he made it home to his grateful owner.

We all said it was just like The Incredible Journey, the long-beloved children’s book by Sheila Every Burnford, about two dogs and a cat that travel together across the wilderness to reunite with their family. That got me thinking about other books written from the animal’s point-of-view:

The family dog, Enzo, tells The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein. Enzo’s ‘dad,’ Denny, loses wife, Eve, to breast cancer, and suddenly finds himself embroiled in a custody battle with Eve’s parents for their young daughter. This moving story is sprinkled throughout with insights Enzo has learned from Denny’s racing career, as metaphors for life. Enzo displays a wisdom many humans only wish we had.

The Fur Person (May Sarton) is a charming tale, written from the perspective of a stray ‘Cat about Town.’ This Gentleman Cat decides it’s time to adopt himself a suitable ‘housekeeper’ for a while and explore the comforts of an indoor home. He finds Gentle Voice and Brusque Voice – his name for the two women who inhabit the suitable home -- and to his astonishment, he transforms into a Fur Person, “a cat who has decided to stay with people as long as he lives.” I discovered this book in the Friends bookstore, not long before my ‘fur person’ adopted me.


The Art of Racing in the Rain
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