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Staff Picks: Books

NYRB Classic Series

For all of the various ways we as readers can discover new authors and titles (amazing librarian recommended titles being a fantastic one), there are still those moments, even as a librarian, that the girth of new and exciting books to choose from overwhelms me, leading to a kind of mental paralysis. To get around this, I've recently decided that what I need is to focus my reading efforts. I am going to try my hand at reading only books published as part of the New York Review Books series (NYRB) for the next couple of months. I'm starting off this project with Arthur Schnitzler's Late Fame. From their web site:

The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres, tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.

The House of Broken Angels

I've mentioned before that I like audiobooks which are narrated by the author, so when I found a new book written and read by the author of Into the Beautiful North, one of my favorite of KPL's Reading Together selections, I was doubly excited. The House of Broken Angels more than lived up to my expectations. I would recommend it in any format, but the book is so full of vivid characters and a mixture of English, Spanish, and Spanglish, that Luis Alberto Urrea's narration is the perfect way to give voice to its rich language.

The House of Broken Angels recounts a few days in the life of a large Mexican-American family, as the central character, Big Angel, is preparing to die. As morbid as that may sound, the story is tender, funny, and lively. The perspective shifts from one character to another, revealing their inner thoughts at least as much as their words and actions. The novel paints a colorful and true-to-life portrait of family life in its glory and despair, and everything in between. 

A Donkey Named Winslow

Sharon Creech is a multiple award winning author of Moo, one of my all time favorite J fiction books. So, when i saw that she had published another, titled Saving Winslow, just this past September 2018, i grabbed it and read it in one sitting. The book is a short 165 pages making it a very engaging, quick  read.

This time , the story revolves around middle schooler Louis and a donkey named Winslow. Louis is surprised when his father gives him a day-old , gray, mini-donkey from Uncle Pete's small farm. The newborn donkey's mother is too sick to care for him, so both adults hope the animal will fare better under Louis's attention, this despite his track record for nurturing young animals in the past  have never been successful. Louis however, is undaunted by his past pet failures , and accepts the mission to care for this pitiful donkey, even though is parents and others tell him not to get too attached to the young animal because it will probably end up dying in a day or so. Undeterred, Louis is determined to succeed this time.

The ending is a somewhat surprising revelation about the special bond between boy and donkey, and the special love that letting things go requires. A well written book that will tug at the heartstrings of any school aged child who loves animals. Sharon Creech has done it again!

9-11 Literature

Author Bryan Charles grew up in Galesburg, Michigan and attended Gull Lake High School in the early 1990’s. His sophomore effort is a memoir detailing the ups and down’s of trying to be an aspiring writer in the Big Apple, after having relocated from Kalamazoo to New York City in the late 1990’s. He quickly discovers the cruel realities associated with big city living, with much of the early part of the book chronicling his frustration with having to work at a soul-crushing job instead of being recognized as the next Don DeLillo. The best-written part of the book (first having appeared in a literary journal as The Numbers), and certainly the book’s emotional core, contains a harrowing passage that describes his escape from one of the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001. Other novels and collections of short stories that attempted to meditate on the post and pre-9-11 world include:

Falling Man: A Novel, Don DeLillo

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud 

The Submission by Amy Waldman 

The Zero by Jess Walter 

Oblivion: Stories by David Foster Wallace

Netherworld by Joseph O'Neill

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer 

The River Why

I recently borrowed this 1983 novel by David James Duncan from my parents, and as soon as I began it, I wondered why I’d never picked it up before. The River Why is a hilarious, quirky, and heartfelt coming-of-age story with a conservation message narrated by the highly earnest Gus Orviston. The son of two passionate but very different fisherpeople, Gus moves to an isolated fishing cabin on an Oregon river as soon as he graduates from high school—in part to escape the maddening relationship between the people who taught him his deep love of fishing. Gus also wants to live by what he calls an "ideal schedule," allotting as much time as possible each day to fishing, spending the bare minimum on necessities such as eating and sleeping.

Gus gradually discovers that as much as he loves fishing, his life is lacking something. Several friends and acquaintances—particularly his eccentric little brother Bill Bob, the only member of the Orivston family who doesn't like fishing—guide Gus in discovering the deeper meaning of life.

I liked this book so much, I wanted to share it with others by writing a review, but at the time, KPL did not own a copy. So I used the suggest an item feature on to request that the library purchase a copy, and they did. Check it out! 

The Story of a Loving Beautiful Relationship

Rescue & Jessica- A Life Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky is a fictionalized true story. The book focuses on the bond between young Jessica and her service dog named Rescue.

Rescue is a black lab pup who was destined to be trained as a seeing eye dog.However, it soon becomes clear to his trainer that Rescue might be better suited being a service dog; a canine helper doing such everyday chores as opening doors, fetching items, and turning on lights for people with disabilities.At the same time ,Jessica contemplates life as an amputee, after operations to remove one leg and then the other it is suggested that she acquire a service dog.

Before Jessica meets Rescue she becomes worried about how the dog will be able to help her with daily routine functions. On the other hand, Rescue is wondering whether he will be able to make a connection with his new companion who needs his help.Once together, it becomes clear to one and all that Rescue and Jessica were meant to save each other.

In the book's afterward, it is revealed that author Jessica Kensky is also an amputee who was injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. Rescue is also the name of her real-life service dog.

Told with compassion and sensitivity this story is recommended for children ages 4-7.



Reservation Blues

I am currently enjoying Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. His first novel starts with legendary bluesman Robert Johnson wandering on to the Spokane Indian reservation, looking for Big Mama of the mountains. He leaves his guitar behind, which compels Thomas Builds-the-Fire to start a band.

Thomas asks the first two people he meets to join the band, despite the fact that they have picked on him his whole life. From there, the mystical guitar leads them in inspired performances, catching the attention of Native Americans across the West. 

A description of the book says that it is about the rise and fall of the band Coyote Springs. Right now, I’m enjoying the rise, and hoping the fall section is as entertaining.

Did you hear about the man who fell through his harp?

I don’t know what I could tell you about the plot of Contrary Motion that might make you want to read it. Newly divorced, neurotic, almost good enough to be a big city orchestra concert harpist Matthew Grzbc (No, I did not forget a vowel.) is the star of this one. Do I have you yet? 

Contrary motion refers to a technique in harp playing where the hands move in opposite directions on the scale.  That isn't working either?

Well, I picked it up because the author, Andy Mozina, is a professor of English at Kalamazoo College and I thought I would see what one of our neighbors is writing. Before I could even get to it, my wife grabbed it and read it in a couple of days. She loved it. I did too. Great writing can you draw you into any kind of story. Give Mozina’s funny, quirky, and poignant novel a try.

An Excess Male

An article in my news feed detailed how, because of the One Child Policy, males vastly outnumber females in China. "An Excess Male" is a dystopian novel that isn't that much of a stretch as what could happen. As is a reality in China, males are competing to get a wife. Though in this novel, a woman can have up to three husbands, and the main family has decided to go to the max. This book details how an unconventional family try to get along with each other and somehow still fit into society. Each of them faces personal difficulties that threaten to tear the family apart. 

I was impressed that this is Maggie Shen King's debut novel. I grew to love each of the characters, and laughed and grew frustrated with them. The conclusion, while a bit open ended, left me wanting a sequel. I wanted to know what happened next, and I am left letting my imagination run wild with the possibilities!

Spy of the First Person

The playwright and actor Sam Shepard died of complications from ALS last year. He leaves behind a final work, composed and transcribed with the assistance of family and friends. Spy of the First Person is both bleak and poetic. The slim novella is stripped of adornment, the prose is spare and haunting, and its themes are familiar to Shepard’s previous work. Not surprisingly, the story echoes the truth of the author’s predicament, even as the disease is only referenced obliquely. Echoing the somber, minimalist work of Samuel Beckett, Shepard’s swan song is the culmination of a cryptic voice, one that confronts its mortality through the expression of the fragments of life lived, seen and ended.