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Staff Picks: Books

The Magic Mirror

Kamara had a hard day at school. One of the boys called her names and used some nasty words talking about her. The one bright spot is that she is on her way to gramma’s house. Kamara knew that gramma would make her feel better. And gramma did. Gramma sent Kamara to clean the mirror upstairs. It was a mirror that had been passed down from her great grandmother to her grandmother and it turned out to be a magic mirror. When Kamara started rubbing the mirror she saw another young girl’s eyes staring back at her.  Through the eyes of women throughout the past centuries Kamara was able to see the violence, hatred and poverty that women of color have faced throughout history. Through it Kamara sees humiliation and determination. She sees pride, beauty and courage.  

There is a lot of history in this very small book. In The Magic Mirror Zetta Elliott does an amazing job of teaching history and courage. She sends the message to young girls that they are not alone.


Being Mortal

 “You don’t need to sacrifice your autonomy just because you need help in your life.”

This is one of the many pearls of wisdom I took from Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a book I’ve been hearing about from others for several months now. Whether facing one’s own sickness, old age, and/or frailty, or caring for someone else’s, this volume poses important questions we might all ask. Gawande, a physician who cites examples from both his professional and personal experience, looks at the truths of human nature that can make the caregiving process—and possible end-of-life realities—less cause for fear and anxiety than it often is.   

More questions/concerns to ponder:
• What makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? (p. 92)
• Human beings have a need for both privacy and community, for flexible daily rhythms and patterns, and for the possibility of forming caring relationships with those around them. (p. 131)

And finally:
• A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives. (p. 282)


Islamic Reformation

For people who respect all world religions, including Islam, this book will be hard to read. Indeed it was for me. It tells the tale of heartbreaking atrocities done in the name of religion, but then goes on to say, as a more generalized theoretical argument, that Islam itself has major problems, that the religion of Islam is violent, that it needs a Reformation like Christianity had. The author, raised in Somalia as a Muslim, has a brutal and oppressive childhood story. Running away to the Netherlands, she divorced her native religion and embraced Western culture and ideas. From there, Dutch Parliament, fellow at Harvard, bestselling author, 100 most influential people in the world according to Time. She has a voice. Here, she calls for a complete Reformation of Islam. And she means it: Stop taking the Koran so seriously, stop taking Muhammed so seriously, stop taking the afterlife so seriously, and forget about Sharia and Jihad. Those are her main suggestions.

If you read this book, I would also suggest comparing it with the thought of Reza Aslan, who has a much more nuanced and complex view regarding Islam, violence, and socio-political considerations. Islam, after all, has over a billion converts all over the world. Therefore, to make any sweeping generalizations about it is virtually impossible. The Islam of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is not the Islam of India, or America, or Turkey.


Station Eleven

"Because survival is insufficient."

With those words (amusingly taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) as their creed, the remnants of a near-future worldwide epidemic attempt to not only survive, but also maintain their humanity. Station Eleven presents several overlapping stories, spanning decades both pre- and post-apocalypse, all revolving around washed-up actor Arthur Leander, who dies onstage during a performance of King Lear moments before the beginning of the epidemic that ends civilization.

Like The Road with a (marginally) more optimistic outlook on life, or the world of Mad Max populated by theater majors instead of post-nuclear mutants, Station Eleven asks what it means to truly be human in a landscape where humanity is severely diminished. A significant portion of the book follows a nomadic theater troupe as they wander between the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare while fighting off bandit attacks and foraging for food. The most quietly devastating section, however, is the last third of the novel, taking place at a small airport in Indiana where the last remnants of humanity slowly congregate, complete with all of its' struggles and triumphs realized in miniature.

Quiet and contemplative, and beautiful as it is brutal, Station Eleven is a welcome and refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic disaster genre.

 


Making Everyday Electronics Work

Making Everyday Electronics Work is a do-it-yourself introductory guide to fixing and maintaining all things electronic. The strength of the book isn't only in getting information on how to fix specific kinds of gadgets. In fact, the title obscures the book's great strength: providing an overview of how electricity works. Instead of a cookbook reference to fixing a handful of electrical systems, here's an explanation of how electrical systems work from generation to consumption. We get a welcome explanation of all of those power line components that take electricity from the power plant to your toaster. As advertised, however, there are entire sections on tools and tests for understanding wireless devices, electronics in your vehicle and much more. It's not a big book and it's not exhaustive, but Making Everyday Electronics Work answers lots of big questions and provides a great introduction to deeper exploration.


Float

In Float we have a wordless picture book about a boy, a folded paper boat, and a storm. Even without words, though, we also have a story about creation, play, loss, comfort, delight, and tenderness.

Take a close look at this small book and then marvel at how Daniel Miyares can give us a complete story with only his wonderful pictures.

 


Swing Sisters

Swing Sisters: the Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a new picture book written by Karen Deans and illustrated by Joe Cepeda, tells the story of the first racially integrated, all-female swing band in the United States. The Sweethearts' story begins with the founding, in 1909, of the Piney Woods Country Life School for African-American orphans in Mississippi. In 1939 the school's founder, Laurence Clifton Jones, started a school band that he thought could help raise money for the school. By the 1940s the band was traveling across the country and, in 1945, even played a six-month tour in Europe for American troops stationed there. The band grew to include girls and women of different racial backgrounds, including Chinese, Mexican, Native American, and white. Because of Jim Crow laws barring socialization between different races, this was a dangerous prospect when the band played in southern states.

Swing Sisters is a great introduction to this unique American treasure. If you want to hear the music of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, you can download some of their hits from Freegal with your library card.

 


At the Water's Edge

This new title by Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, is another well written period novel, this time World War II in a small village in the Scottish Highlands.

It is a love story, an examination of the impact of war on a naïve young woman, the search for the Loch Ness monster, and a husband’s spiral into self-deception. At times the story is quite believable, others times it is a stretch. I did keep reading to the end though.

I consider this a good beach read, better than many of that unofficial genre.

 


Rescue Cat Rescues Boy

 When Fraser Met Billy is an engaging true account written by Louise Booth, the mother of two kids; Fraser and Pippa.

 

When Fraser was just several months old, Louise was aware that her son was not completely normal. Her intuitions are confirmed when at 18 months, Fraser is diagnosed with autism. Besides this, he also has hypotonia, a rare muscular disorder that makes his joints loose.

 

At an early age, Fraser finds it difficult to communicate, often has tantrums, emotional meltdowns and easily withdraws into his own private world. Depending on the circumstances with which he is confronted, his behavior is unpredictable and volatile. Fraser begins speech and behavioral treatment, but his therapists soon come to the conclusion that Fraser will never attend a normal, mainstream school. This is devastating news to Louise and her husband Chris.

 

Prior to this crisis, the Booth family had always loved cats. In fact, they share their space with an aging cat named Toby, who is mostly preoccupied with sleeping and eating. Louise starts wondering if a much younger pet would prove to be a positive influence on Fraser; a “special” friend of sorts that her son could interact with and bond.

 

Shortly thereafter, the parents contact the Cat Protection League. A caregiver there senses that one of two identical cats, Billy or Bear, found together earlier in an abandoned house, might make a good fit for Fraser.

 

Prior to meeting the cats, Fraser studies their photos and keeps these by his bed. Unlike most adults, he is right away able to distinguish between the two. When Fraser and his parents meet the cats at the rescue, he instantly latches onto Billy. Upon arriving home, he declares that “Billy is going to be Fraser’s very best friend”, a statement that truly predicted their present and future relationship in more ways than one.

 

The two become inseparable and this rescue cat transforms Fraser’s life. As Louise puts it “Billy had the ability to enter Fraser’s own, private universe, a place that none of us could penetrate. It had made that universe a less lonely place for Fraser but not only that; it had encouraged him to venture out of it so that he was more and more part of our world”.

 

As time goes by, Fraser is able to enroll into a mainstream school and is currently doing remarkably well.

 

I found this book difficult to put down. I read it in two sittings and love its reaffirmation of the power of the animal/human bond; something that can never be overestimated.


Happy Loving Day

Today marks the 48th anniversary of legal protection for interracial families and their right to marry throughout the nation. The landmark case, Loving V. Virginia (1967) and the story behind it, has recently been transformed into an illustrated children's book called The Case for Loving: the fight for interracial marriage. Sound interesting? Check out the HBO-produced documentary about this significant legal case and its historical importance.