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Staff Picks: Books

Lose Yourself In a Book

As I get older, I retain less and less of what I read. Sometimes I find it hard to even recall storylines or important parts of books from things I’m currently reading when people ask me. However, Rebecca Solnit, a writer I discovered about three years ago, has related stories and created images that have stuck in my mind. Not all she has to say resonates with me, but there has always been something that catches my imagination and carves its message into my not so malleable memory.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her meditation on different ways of being lost or losing ourselves, I was moved by her description of 16th century Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca’s transformation as he gets lost in Florida and over a decade later arrives in New Mexico and finally meets up with other Spaniards, only to find he has very little in common with them anymore or with who he was ten years before. 

Pick up a Rebecca Solnit book and get lost in it. Somewhere in there you will find a treasure.

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks

   bell hooks' Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood is an odd book. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It focuses on hooks’ childhood, but each brief chapter can be savored as an individual short story. hooks grew up in a home with several sisters and one brother, but feeling like an outsider rather than a member of the family. She was curious about taboo topics like death, race, marriage, sexuality, and gender roles, but she could not discuss these subjects openly with anyone. 

   Only one of her grandmothers and her grandfather understood her. Her parents punished her for talking back, warned her that too much reading would drive her crazy, concerned themselves with her lack of interest in boys, then worried about her interest in the wrong boys, and fretted that she would become “funny” (their word for homosexual). Her sisters disliked and excluded her, and her friendship with her brother dissolved as he matured. Despite these shaky relationships, she found mentorship in a pastor, a teacher, and others who encouraged her to embrace her individuality. Her love of reading also inspired her, and she became a poet, and eventually the famous academic and author the world knows her as today.

 This was the first time I read hooks for leisure instead of as part of an academic assignment, and I sped through Bone Black. This book is a nice entry point to get to know hooks’ character and her writing. Her most notorious work is Killing Rage but I am happy to have read Bone Black first to see how her experiences during childhood contributed to her perspective as an adult.



Weekends with Daisy

Sharron Kahn Luttrell had self-diagnosed CDD (Canine Deficit Disorder) when she chose to volunteer as a weekend puppy raiser for NEADS in their Prison Pup Partnership program. During the week, the puppy, Daisy, was raised and trained by Keith, an inmate dog handler at a nearby prison. On weekends Daisy stayed with Luttrell’s family. Here Sharron gradually introduced Daisy to many experiences she could not get inside the prison as part of Daisy’s training to become a service dog.

Though Luttrell was the puppy’s primary trainer on the weekends, the whole family fell in love with her. Sharon found that her parenting skills and insights grew as she focused on training Daisy. The dog helped her bridge gaps between her and her oldest child, Aviva. Her son, the most eager family member to meet Daisy, accompanied his mom to several of the pup’s training events.

The author illustrated the value of this program to the prisoners who participate. Training the puppies helps them develop a positive relationship with another living being. They have to provide constant care, patience and consistency throughout the week. The experience builds self-esteem for the inmate dog handlers, as they watch the puppies learn and succeed, knowing their efforts will make a difference for someone else, if the puppy becomes a service dog. Luttrell sometimes fantasized about how it would be, if Daisy were to fail the rigorous testing to become a service dog, for as the weekend trainer, her family could have ‘first dibs’ on adopting Daisy. As she grew to know Keith better, however, she became properly motivated to improve Daisy’s weekend training and ensure her success as a service dog. Her motivation came not just because it was the right thing to do, but also because she cared about Keith and wanted his success, too.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

     This immensely popular book by Jonas Jonasson alternates between the present life of Swedish centenarian Allan Karlsson and the timeline of his long life up until then. On the day of his 100th birthday, dreading the party planned for him at the Old Folks Home, he simply walks away. He goes to the bus station, and while there he waits for a bus that will take him as far as he can get with the money on him, and that will leave as soon as possible so as to avoid being caught by Director Alice of the Old Folks Home. As he waits, this punk type reluctantly asks him to watch his suitcase while he uses the restroom. And what does Allan do, but take the suitcase with him onto the bus, unaware of the surprising contents! 

     This sets a funny, dangerous, wonderful chain of events into motion that more and more people become involved with as the story progresses. Allan’s past is even more interesting than his present, and even more full of perilous and amusing twists and turns. He meets Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, among other famous historical figures. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared was a joy to read from start to finish, and I highly recommend it. It will definitely be admired by readers who appreciate adventure, quirky/dark humor, and outlandish situations.

Cecil’s Everlasting Roar

When Cecil the lion was killed in July 2015, the event precipitated a huge outpouring of grief, anger and disgust among people from all over the world. Cecil was a protected lion who was lured out of his safe haven, the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Africa, by native hunting guides for the express purpose of letting Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist by vocation and a misguided, self-styled big game hunter by avocation, shoot him dead. Cecil was killed in cold blood only to satisfy an American dentist’s craving to be surrounded by dead animal trophies.
Shortly after the news of Cecil’s demise spread, numerous protests erupted led by conservation groups, animal advocates and just common folks. The anger and sadness resonated and lingered on for more than a month after the careless killing.

However, one positive outcome was a huge surge in donations for animal conservation efforts. Even celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel spoke out against the senseless slaughter and helped raise over $150,000 to aid preservation. Jane Goodall the world renowned primatologist simply stated, “I have no words to express my repugnance.”

The authors of Cecil’s Pride: The True Story of a Lion King are a father and his two daughters, the Hatkoffs. They wrote this children’s book not to dwell on his sudden and inhumane death, but rather to celebrate through narrative a life that was well lived. Photographs by Cecil’s human friend Brent Stapelkamp, underscore the beauty and fullness of his time on earth. Taken over the course of nine years, Brent, a wildlife researcher, tracked, and documented Cecil as he wandered about in the forests and plains of Hwange Park.

Since lions defend their pride and territory against other lions who challenge them, it was known that Cecil was challenged by a long-time rival named Jericho. They fought to see who would gain control. But when other male lions started moving into their domain, something unusual happened; Cecil and Jericho formed an alliance against the interlopers!

After Cecil’s sudden death, it was feared that Jericho would either abandon or kill Cecil’s cubs to start his own family, which is usually the case when the male head of the pride dies. However, in this case another astonishing turn of events came to be when Jericho took in Cecil’s cubs to raise them as his own.

This is a wonderfully touching true story with vivid photos that proclaims that Cecil’s legacy will live on.

Facts about lions as well as the global impact of Cecil’s death are included. New laws and regulations about illegal hunting of lions as well as other endangered species is a hopeful sign that conservation efforts will improve and protect these majestic animals. But as is usually the case, only time will tell if they still have a chance.



I became a fan of Lindy West’s during her time as a writer for the popular feminist blog Jezebel.  She’s wildly funny and writes honestly about topics such as feminism, body image, and abortion.  Shrill, her first book, had me cracking up—sometimes in public, which is an embarrassing situation if you’re sitting in a coffee shop by yourself and suddenly start laughing out loud.  I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to any Millennial looking for a laugh alongside insightful commentary on life for young women today.

Joseph's Big Ride

 When Joseph and his mother make the long journey from a refugee camp in Kenya to America, he brings along his fascination with bicycles.   Although there is much about  his new neighborhood that Joseph doesn’t understand, he does know a good bike when he sees one.  Joseph’s Big Ride is a story about making new friends, trying something different, and the simple joy of riding a bike. 


The dreams our stuff is made of

I came to this book through a small blurb I read awhile back in Wired magazine reporting that business magnate-engineer-investor Elon Musk naming his SpaceX drone spaceships after sentient spacecraft from the sci-fi novels of Iain M. Banks. When I read that those names didn’t adhere to your typical spacecraft naming conventions but instead had the provocative names 'Just Read the Instructions' and 'Of Course I Still Love You', I was intrigued and needed to find out more about Iain M. Banks and his brand of science fiction. I began with Player of Games, the second title in Bank’s series of interrelated but not necessarily sequential Culture Novels. It blew me away, and now I will read all ten novels the Banks wrote before his untimely death in 2013. Bank’s presents a vision of a far future society, called simply the Culture, in which humans and humanoids live symbiotically with highly evolved AI and technology so advanced as to create a post-scarcity economy in which everything desired is available for free with no need for work, or laws, or many rules of any kind. It is a wildly inventive concept and so much fun to read. Truly brilliant stuff!

Not All Comic Book Characters Wear Capes

Graphic novels have a reputation for being all about superheroes and explosions, but they can be a really great format to tell more nuanced stories as well. I’d like to shine a spotlight on two evocative, character-focused, slice-of-life stories that really shine in a graphic novel format.

The first is a manga called Solanin by Inio Asano. The story follows Meiko, a recent college grad, and her friends a group of 20-somethings living in the background of a Japanese city. Over the course of the summer they grapple with all of the challenges of new adulthood: starting careers, finding their purpose in life, and how to break it to their parents that they’ve moved in with their boyfriend. Though the characters are Japanese, the themes are universal. Solanin is a novel with fantastic art work, and a story that will stay with me for a long time.

The second graphic novel is called Token by Alisa Kwitney, with illustrations by Joelle Jones. Token is a story about fifteen year old Shira Spektor, living in Miami, Florida in 1987. She lives with her father in an apartment building on South Beach, and spends most of her time with her best friend, a spunky 80-year-old woman who shoots straight from the hip. When her father starts dating his secretary, and the girls at school turn decidedly nasty, Shira turns to shoplifting. Just when she feels that there’s no one she can talk to, she meets a tall handsome stranger. She is falling in love for the first time just as everything else in her life seems to be falling apart. Token is fun, flirty, and timeless.

Both books have a lazy summer vibe perfect for the upcoming warmer months.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

For the last six years or so, it has been more or less impossible to avoid hearing discussions concerning the HBO series Game of Thrones, and most have probably heard enough to determine for themselves whether or not it’s their cup of tea.

In the case of those who have become captivated by (read: obsessed with) the show and left wanting during the between-season stretch from July to April each year, the obvious solution has been to turn their attention to George R.R. Martin’s gritty and compelling magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire, currently consisting of five novels off which the show is based. Many will be delighted to discover that these works tend to weigh in around 700+ pages each, meaning all that much more time to spend enthralled in the exploits of their favorite characters as conflicts rage across Westeros and Essos.

For those who balk at that task, which is no small feat, yet still want to experience the canonical story elements sidelined, re-imagined, or omitted entirely by the show, I cannot recommend the audiobook versions of these books enough. This was my chosen method for getting myself up to speed so I could safely engage with online resources free of the dread feeling that I was about to stumble upon some devastating spoiler.

Since publishing the fifth entry in the seven book series in 2011 (which was only a year after the show began its run) Martin has been working on the sixth installment entitled The Winds of Winter. He had initially expressed his wishes via blog post to hand the book to his publisher by Halloween of 2015. That date was later revised to the end of the calendar year. Then it was to be finished by the premiere of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. In January of this year, he revised his stance again saying, “It will be done when it’s done.”

Fans are understandably anxious for the next book. The internet is full of angst over the idea that Martin may pass away before he’s able to finish the next two books- never mind that this is a human being we’re talking about- the books! YouTube videos have been made pleading for more news and sample chapters. Songs have been written. Guitars have been smashed.

For better or worse, Martin is not a single-minded automaton. He’s been busy attending conventions, working on the HBO show, living his life, and even working on other books. He recently published a three-part prequel novella collection entitled A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which takes place approximately one hundred years prior to the events in the other books in the series, and chronicles the exploits of the young hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall, or Dunk, and his precocious squire, Egg.

The general tone tends to be bit more light-hearted than that of previous books in the series which many may find refreshing. A further departure from those works can be seen in the static point of view, told entirely from Dunk’s perspective as opposed to a rotating cast of characters. In both of these ways, it’s a bit like the Hobbit when compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Martin’s fans will find plenty to enjoy in the era of relative peace that preceded Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings, and it’s a perfect distraction for those who are anxiously biding their time and waiting for the next bit of news concerning the coming of winter.