Staff Picks: Books

Notes from the Blender

I like teen books. They’re clever, easy to read, and they usually end well, even if the story gets messy in the middle. Here’s what I liked, especially, about Notes from the Blender:

It’s told in two different voices: a boy and a girl (unrelated) whose single parents have hooked up and gotten pregnant. Suddenly Declan finds he’s going to be step-brother to his biggest crush. Popular, beautiful Neilly, whose parents divorced when her father came out, now finds herself estranged from her mother, yet oddly open to making friends with Declan, one of the least cool kids in school.

There are four positive gay characters in the story, including Neilly’s father and his fiancé. Neilly likes her new stepdad-to-be, and she proudly defends her father’s sexual orientation.

Declan’s lesbian aunt is minister at the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church he attends. The way the adults in the church are portrayed is pretty realistic of UU communities. Unitarian Universalism doesn’t get much press in our culture, but teens who are UU’s deserve to have their church show up positively in novels. He has a close relationship with his aunt and her partner, which deepened after his mother died.

Declan’s dad gets to be a real man with feelings, grief and awkwardness, who generally communicates well with Declan (even though he botched the chance to tell Declan about his new love, before there was a baby on the way.)

Authors Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin also paired up for A Really Awesome Mess in 2013.


Notes from the Blender

Fighting for a Safe Harbor

Some say that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” because presumably everyone involved participates willingly. Rachel Lloyd, in Girls Like Us, demonstrates that many girls and young women recruited and trafficked into the commercial sex industry are clearly victims of the system.

Lloyd, the executive director of GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, was once a victim of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE.) She was eventually able to escape, through the support of a caring church community and some adults—surrogate parents, in essence-- who reached out to her, offering her a chance for educational and professional success, beyond the life she knew.

In Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World where Girls are not for Sale, an Activist Finds her Calling and Heals Herself, Lloyd breaks it all down: how the neglect and abuse most girls experience prior to exploitation sets them up to become victims of CSE; the methods pimps use to keep the girls from leaving; the stigma that surrounds girls, once they’ve become commercially sexually exploited. She also describes in detail what factors must be present to support someone leaving and successfully thriving, after living ‘in the life.’

Lloyd, along with several of the girls served by GEMS, successfully persuaded the New York State legislature to enact the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, which aims to protect –rather than prosecute—children subjected to sex trafficking.


Girls like us: fighting for a world where girls are not for sale an activist finds her calling and heals herself

Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend

When I read that Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend was Library Journal’s pick for top nonfiction title of 2011, I was intrigued.

Author Susan Orlean has written a wonderfully readable book, not only about Rin Tin Tin, the iconic dog star of films and TV. Her story ranges widely and touches on the early history of Hollywood and films, the bravery and use of animals in war, and much more.

The story begins on a battlefield in France during World War I. A young American soldier, Lee Duncan, discovers an orphaned German shepherd puppy in a bombed out kennel. He has left his own dog behind in America, and adopts the small pup. Duncan, who was raised in an orphanage, feels an affinity with the abandoned dog, whom he names Rin Tin Tin. He immediately senses that this is an extraordinary dog, and is fortunately able to bring “Rinty” back to the US. The rest, as the saying goes, is history—and what a ride it is!

Susan Orlean is a respected reporter who spent ten years researching and writing this book, the story of a dog born in 1918 and his descendants, and the people who loved them and helped to insure their legacy.

This is a book for all people who have ever had or loved a dog.


Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend

25 Years of Brilliant Essays and Reviews

There are several elements that I feel, that while not required, certainly make for better reading when it comes to essays, reviews and personal reflections. They are: 1.) an energetic prose that flows well and that doesn’t become bogged down in obtuse jargon and esoteric detail 2.) an economy and focus (most pieces should not exceed 7 pages in length) when summarizing a particular subject’s value or importance to either the audience or the writer 3.) a calm passion and genuine curiosity for the subject matter and lastly 4.) an engagement with complex ideas or cultural values by mixing together an element of wit with a fierce and independent intelligence.

Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction prose really hits the spot for me and for those who love writers willing to tackle a multitude of subjects with a fresh perspective, check out his Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. Fans of the late cultural critic John Leonard or those who enjoy the inventive observations of Greil Marcus may also enjoy Dyer’s work. Dyer tackles the books of writers like Richard Ford, Don Delillo, Lorrie Moore, and John Cheever along with personal takes on comic strips and life as an only child. He delves into the inner essence of works of art like J.M.W Turner’s painting Figures in a Building, linking its evocative power with that of Tarkovskii's masterpiece, Stalker. Along the way, you’ll learn about the impact of Richard Avedon’s mixing of high art with fashion photography and how Susan Sontag’s fiction pales in comparison to her contributions as a cultural critic. Dyer is never boring even when you may take issue with his opinions. You’ll never end up with just a straight, descriptive review with Dyer. He’s a deft craftsman with a talent for bringing out new readings on old subjects. Highly recommended.


Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

Salvage the Bones

In her acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, author Jesmyn Ward said “…I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the south so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs.”  If this was the goal for her award-winning novel Salvage the Bones, I certainly believe she achieved it.  Salvage the Bones, set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, tells the story of the Batiste family struggling to survive daily life in the shadow of a hurricane.  Esch, the narrator, is fifteen and pregnant, and alone in a household of men.   Her father, an alcoholic since her mother passed away, can think only of protecting the family from the hurricane, while her brother Skeetah is obsessed with his prize fighting pit bull and her pups.  Her brother Randall is focused on winning a scholarship to basketball camp, and her little brother Junior relies on Esch to act as mother.  Their lives seem dangerously close to falling apart even without the assistance of one the worst hurricanes in American history, and the threat of impending doom creates an uneasy tension in the novel. Salvage the Bones is the story of human struggle, endurance, and love, and I don’t what could be more “fraught and lovely and important” than that.


Salvage the bones

Memory and Obsession

Dana Spiotta's new novel, Stone Arabia, is about memory and obsession.  Denise, the novel's narrarator explores her relationship with her brother Nik, who is a musician.  Nik is creative and started several bands that almost made it, but not finding popular success doesn't stop Nik's flow of work.  Strangely, not only does Nik continue to be prolific in recording music, he creates The Chronicles which compile the history of his fictional bands complete with album and concert reviews that he writes. 

As Nik obsesses about his own little made up world, Denise obsesses about other people's problems she encounters through the media.  Interestingly, Denise does not criticize the media bombardment we experience for desensitizing us to tragedy, but the exact opposite.  She feels it makes her too sensitive to too many people's problems about which she can really do nothing. 


Stone Arabia

This just in!!!

I was just thrilled this week when I checked the holds shelf and Rooster's revenge, the 3rd installation of Beatrice Rodriguez' Chicken Thief trilogy, was waiting for me! This wordless set of picture books that I dare say are of interest to ANY AGE is truly husband sat with us on the couch as I "read" them to my daughter, and I even overheard him mentioning them to one of his guy friends. The illustrations are adorable, witty, with the characters' emotions perfectly portrayed on every page--no words necessary. A quick summary of the trilogy: in The chicken thief, a fox kidnaps a hen on a serene morning, and her friends give Fox and Hen together...well, hard to say without giving away the ending of The chicken thief but the title gives you an idea...and ditto to Rooster's revenge--VERY worth your while to find out!


Rooster's revenge

World Without Fish

For a fast-moving look at the crisis of the oceans, check out Mark Kurlansky’s World Without Fish, a 2011 release geared to readers aged nine and up. Kurlansky, a former commercial fisherman, explains how overfishing, pollution, and global warming are a triple threat to ocean eco-systems. He argues that these threats must be resolved by the generation of people that are not yet adults. I appreciated the nuanced explanation of the problems and the potential solutions that are available to us. Punctuated by a multi-part comic strip narrative and other illustrations by Frank Stockton, World Without Fish is fascinating for its design alone. Mark Kurlansky is the author of the bestselling Cod, among other books.


World Without Fish

You Really Do Want to Cook This Now.

Melissa Clark has had plenty of experience writing about food; she’s a food columnist for the New York Times, a contributor to magazines such as Bon Appétit, and has written over 30 cookbooks.  To be honest, her expertise intimidated me—I thought the recipes in her latest cookbook, Cook This Now, might be difficult to make or full of hard-to-find ingredients.  Instead I found a thoughtfully arranged cookbook with recipes that incorporated simple, accessible ingredients and clear instructions.  Each recipe includes a short addendum called “What Else?” that provides hints for making the recipe turn out just right and also tips for substitutions or variations.  There’s no going wrong with Clark’s help!  My favorite recipe is for cumin-roasted cauliflower served with yogurt and pomegranate (you can find this recipe on my favorite food blog, Smitten Kitchen); it may sound a bit fussy, but in reality it’s simple to make and so delicious!  I liked this cookbook enough to put it on my "Best of 2011" list. 


Cook This Now

Ask Me Why I Hurt

I first heard of Randy Christensen, MD, when Diane Rehm interviewed him on her show, discussing Ask Me Why I Hurt. “Dr. Randy” is medical director of Crews’n Healthmobile, a mobile medical clinic providing health care for homeless youth in Phoenix, AZ. In this book, Christensen tells the true stories of many of the young people he’s treated on the healthmobile, changing names and identifying characteristics, of course, to protect the privacy of his patients.

We learn early on where the book gets its title, when “Mary” appears outside the van, wearing a beaded bracelet, with the words “ask me why I hurt” spelled out in block letters. Mary nervously avoided the doctor’s direct questions, so it took a while for Dr. Randy to build enough rapport with her to trust he could ask the question, without her running away. When Mary did finally answer him, after several stops to the mobile, he learned she’d been seriously sexually abused by her father. Mary’s and the other teenagers’ stories told in this book are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, as many of them do ultimately find reason to hope and ways to heal.

I take exception to the subtitle: “the Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor who Heals Them.” To say this book is about the kids nobody wants isn’t the whole truth. Many of the young people seeking health care at Crews’n have experienced serious neglect and/or abuse, often at the hands of family members, that is true. Yet, Mary finds sanctuary and a second chance with her aunt; ultimately, we learn that she goes on to finish her education and complete a master’s degree. Donald—a boy whose father beat him so severely he sustained permanent brain damage--gains a loving family and caring community when Pastor and Mrs. Richardson take him in. Then there are all the workers from HomeBase, a shelter for teens, and UMOM, a shelter for homeless families, who help teens prepare for adult life, via GED and life skills education.

To my mind, the book isn’t really about Randy Christensen. Granted, he shared autobiographical details that help the reader understand the stresses of trying to balance family life with the particular challenges of his chosen career. And yes, as I read the story, I came to care about him, as well as the kids that visit the van. The book is written in first-person narrative, but the main reason for the book is that these young people matter, their stories matter, and Christensen felt they needed to be heard. Christensen shows us that there are a lot of young people suffering, there's a desperate need for more services and protection for them, and yet there are many people who care and are helping teens-at-risk make positive changes in their lives.


Ask Me Why I Hurt

Download a Little Bit of History

An important academic voice for more than three decades, Manning Marable’s scholarly career was defined by an eclectic and astute collection of books that explored the relationship between racial politics, capitalism, and African American history. His final book prior to his death in April of this year was a controversial biography of Malcolm X (Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention). This National Book Award nominated title can be downloaded to your e-reader device or tablet.


Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention

Kill Alex Cross (I keep rooting for the Villain)

 "Kill Alex Cross" by James Patterson. There are times I'd like to kill Alex Cross or at least let him get beat up like he did in a previous book. For those of you who do not know Alex Cross, he is a Detective working in Washington DC and is a recurring character in James Patterson books. For those of you who do know him, do you find him as arrogant and full of himself as I do? In this book the President's children go missing. Even though there are literally thousands of intelligent agents from all sorts of agencies; Secret Service, FBI etc, Alex Cross thinks if only he could see the evidence he could solve this. Unfortunately he is James Patterson's protagonist so of course he solves the crimes and is the hero. That said, I did find this book to be a page turner and stayed up too late nights reading just one more chapter. In addition to the president's children missing there is also a terrorist group doing bad things. I'm not sure how I feel about books that detail how a terrorist group could poison the water, or sabotage the subway etc, on one hand it makes us more aware but on the other hand it hands over to a terrorist group a plan of attack. Course a lot of mysteries show you how to commit the perfect crime. The other thing that bugs me about Alex Cross is how he thinks he is the best dad in the world when really his nana is raising those children. He just shows up from time to time like a divorced dad with visitation rights. Keeping in mind this is a fictional character I give kudos to James Patterson, he elucidated a response out of me and made Alex Cross Real. His name is on many books in collaboration with another writer. Personally I think those books are written by those writers and James Patterson just had editorial rights. I like the Alex Cross novels best and I anxiously await his next Alex Cross Book.



Kill Alex Cross

Are You a Psychopath?

Did you ever wonder if you were a psychopath? I hope you answered, “no,” to that question. If you have, please do not comment on my blog entry and I do not work at the Kalamazoo Public Library.

But seriously, all types of folks should enjoy Jon Ronson’s new book, The Psychopath Test: a Journey Through the Madness Industry. As Ronson tries to untangle the history of the label of psychopath by exploring several different cases, he starts to wonder if the traits of a psychopath are actually advantages in business or the political arena. He also questions his own sanity at several different points, especially after he reads through the mental illnesses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

I listened to this book during my commute to work and along with the interesting subject matter, I loved listening to Ronson’s British accent and his, at times, over-excited delivery. I definitely recommend the audiobook.


The Psychopath Test

Memoirs of a Goldfish

Ever wonder what a day in the life of a goldfish is like?  Well, wonder no longer.  Michgan author Devin Scillian's brilliant book, Memoirs of a Goldfish (excellently illustrated by Tim Bowers), takes you through not only a day but several days for an adorable little goldfish.  He gets curious, grumpy, lonely, excited, and nervous among many other things.  He finds friends, love, and probably himself.   I like him and so will you!  (P.S.  Tell all your friends about him, too, since this book is the Michigan Reads! title for 2011!)


Memoirs of a Goldfish

Minding Frankie

Minding Frankie is one of Maeve Binchy’s best novels yet! Baby girl Frankie is born to mother Stella, who is dying of cancer. Stella names Noel--an alcoholic struggling with work and life, who has had no recent contact with Stella—as the father. Noel is forced to step up to the plate and do right by this infant. As a result, his life is transformed, as well as the lives of many family members and neighbors.

As happens also in Jan Karon novels, the lives of Maeve Binchy's characters intertwine with each other in unexpected ways. We get to know and care about who they are, how they are growing and how their lives touch each other. In recent Binchy novels, I’ve felt a strong thread of cynicism that has frankly put me off. The classic Binchy irony appeared again in this novel, but she left the cynicism out, allowing the humor and richness of the busy world we inhabit to shine through.

I would rank this one right up there with Evening Class.


Minding Frankie

What would you do for family?

Lisa Gardner had me guessing, backtracking and rethinking. She did it, she didn’t do it or how could she do it! In Love You More a female state trooper must fight the battle of her life for her survival and the survival of the most important person in the world to her. This is a passionate suspense that touches on the lives of many and the relationships that intertwine with them. Great story! I was hooked from the beginning and could not put it down!

This title comes in many formats. I'm sure you can find the right one for you.


Love you more

One Hundred Names for Love

I love language. One of my favorite quotes is from poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye who said: 
It is really hard to be lonely very long in a world of words. Even if you don't have friends somewhere, you still have language, and it will find you and wrap its little syllables around you and suddenly there will be a story to live in.
Whether I’m writing or speaking, I have always enjoyed the process of choosing just the right word for the right situation. I can’t imagine not having that ability. This is why I have been looking forward to reading Diane Ackerman’s new memoir, which chronicles her experience of seeing her husband, author Paul West, suffer a stroke and immediately lose his own ability to use language. As Ackerman poignantly describes the impact of this loss: "Words had been his pastime, solace, and obsession for so many decades. How on earth would he now pass the time? More like let time pass over him. Surely his days now held more hours than before, idle hours alone and with no words as windup toys." (p. 87) For this particular couple, a shared love of words and wordplay is what had brought them together in the first place, having played a continuous and ubiquitous role in their marriage. The devastation of losing that connection, and ultimately regaining it, is the basis for Ackerman’s story.

As I expected, my emotions have been stirred and my sensibilities challenged, as I read this touching love story and try to imagine an existence without the ability to say exactly what’s on my mind, and to say it with just the right words.

One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing


Coming in July...

When I read an entire book in a day--not a common occurrence for me--I know it must have something special. Such is the case with Once Upon a River, the next offering by Kalamazoo's own National Book Award nominee, Bonnie Jo Campbell. And for this, I credit Campbell's mastery of language; her sound, down-to-earth characterizations; and a setting I could actually feel in my bones. This is the story of sixteen-year-old Margo Crane’s struggle to find the mother who abandoned her, while carving out her own existence along the fictitious Stark River in southwest Michigan following her father's untimely death. And yet, life on the river is not the challenge one might expect it to be; in fact, that is where Margo feels most at home. Rather it is in the relationships--and self-discovery--that happen along the journey that we come to know Margo best. While published for an adult audience, teen readers will identify as well.

As you anticipate the release of this title (July 2011), you might want to take advantage of the opportunity to catch up on some of Campbell's previous work. I know I will. 


Once Upon a River

Beyond biography

I admit that before reading Douglas Coupland’s unique and, in my opinion, brilliant new biography Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! I really did know very little about McLuhan aside from the few well-known McLuhan-isms that seem to make up most people’s knowledge of McLuhan; his famous declaration that the medium is the message turning out to be just as prescient and unclear in its intent as Andy Warhol’s prediction that in the future we would all be famous for 15 minutes. But since we now live in the world that McLuhan so clearly predicted nearly half a century ago (as did Warhol for that matter – youtube anyone?), I found it fascinating to read about the man himself and to find him so complex and full of contradictions and, filtered as he is through multiple layers of pop culture, nothing like what I thought he was like. A quick internet search gives us easy access to the chronological facts of McLuhan’s life, a quick glance at the Wikipedia page devoted to him will give you the highlights, but this biography provides something much more, something human and modern and interesting in and of itself, even if you care nothing about Marshal McLuhan. This slim volume is structured nothing like a conventional biography, it bounces all over the place in short little dissociated blurbs of text, but the choice of this approach in Coupland’s accomplished hands is perfect and renders the book and the subject much more interesting than a straight telling of the facts would have. The way that the format of this book added to deeper understanding of the subject reminds me of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke and the way that book added to my understanding of the build up to WWII in such an interesting and meaningful way.


Marshal McLuhan: You Know Nothing of my Work!

Expanded Best Seller List

I always skim the lists of bestsellers in the Sunday New York Times Book Review when the library copy comes my way. The lists have traditionally included hardcover fiction and nonfiction, and paperbacks in various formats and genres.

Not surprisingly, there are now two news lists: E-Book Best Sellers and Combined Print and E-Book Best Sellers. There is also a comparison of the fiction bestsellers – where the same title falls on the print list vs. the e-book list.

There is quite a bit of overlap. The titles high on the print lists are also high on the e-book list. Obviously readers want a particular title and the format is increasingly unimportant.

Is the format important / unimportant to you? I admit I still prefer print.


The New York Times Best Sellers

More Good Books

I like book lists. I like to see what others have particularly enjoyed and recommend. I check off the ones I have read, add some to my list-of-books-to-read-sometime.

One of my favorite lists has just been released: Notable Books 2011. This list is compiled by librarians who work with adult literature, are familiar with the opinion of book reviewers, and probably read tens and tens of books a year themselves. They select fiction, nonfiction, and poetry titles.

Once again, I have several titles to add to my list. I need more reading time!


Notable Books

The Big Payback

In the summer of 1985 I drove to Kalamazoo (I had just turned 16 and I had just acquired my driver’s license. This was my first drive of more than 10 minutes duration) with two of my close friends from our small town of Stevensville, MI to attend the Fresh Fest at Wings Stadium. The Fresh Fest was the first multiple act rap music concert to tour the country, and brought a taste of hip-hop music and culture to many area's of the country for the first time. The concert featured headliners Run-DMC, along with the Fat Boys, Whodini, pioneering DJ Grandmaster Flash (sans the furious five), and an assortment of break dancing crews and graffiti artists. This was before the ubiquity of MTV and before the internet leveled the information playing field and information was not as free and easy as it is today.  My friends and I seemed to be the only people in our town who knew about rap music and only because we were hip to a fuzzy but listenable signal that, on a clear day, reached across the lake to us from WGCI 107.5 in Chicago and back then only occasionally played hip-hop music. The Fresh Fest was the first time my friends and I saw hip-hop culture live and in person and it blew our minds it was so cool! And yet we had no clue that we were witnessing the first leaps of a cultural phenomenon that would evolve into a multibillion-dollar industry not only dominating the music industry but gaining global cultural influence. These memories have come pouring back to me while reading The Big Payback, Dan Charnas’s authoritative and comprehensive history of the business of hip-hop music. Charnas leaves no stone unturned as he chronicles the amazing story of hip-hop and the artists, entrepreneurs, record executives, and hustlers who made it what it is today. If only I had kept that Run-DMC t-shirt that I bought at the Fresh Fest!


The Big Payback

An Early 2011 Favorite

One of the first books I’ve read in this new year, might just end up being one of my favorites of the year!

Patti Smith went to New York City in the late 60’s, determined to make art her life. Through a series of almost unlikely events, she meets Robert Mapplethorpe, and they become life-long soul mates, as they eventually both become famous - Patti ultimately in music, Robert in photography.

Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, 2010 National Book Award nonfiction winner, describes the NYC scene in the late 60’s and 70’s; shares tales of the Chelsea Hotel, Scribner’s ,Brentano’s and Strand bookstores; and relationships with many then emerging artists – Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter among others.

Mostly, however, this memoir is a tender love letter to Robert, their deep friendship and her abiding belief in his genius.

I know it is early to declare favorites of the year – it’s only January - but I will say my reading year is off to a wonderful start.


“Just Kids” by Patti Smith