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Staff Picks: Books

Silence : In the Age of Noise

Isn't it ironic that I'm writing about silence on the eve of the noisiest day of the year? Erling Kagge is a Norwegian explorer who has completed the Three Poles Challenge on foot -- the North Pole, the South Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest. In this small book translated from the Norwegian, he discusses the 'silence around us, the silence within us, and the silence we must create.' He further tells why silence is essential to our sanity and happiness, and how it can open doors to wonder and gratitude. Silence seems to be in short supply in this modern age, and the author indicates that 'there are very few people who are able to avoid noise altogether. We learn to live with it because we think that we must, but noise is and remains a disturbing element that reduces our quality of life, not only for people, but for animals as well.' There are many other well-said thoughts here, such as, 'Silence is about rediscovering, through pausing, the things that bring us joy.'

Heating & Cooling

I like a book I can read in an hour—it gives me a feeling of accomplishment. But admire Beth Ann Fennelly's Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs so much I read it twice. As the subtitle suggests, it's a collection of very short memoir pieces, many shorter than this post, covering a range of subjects from childhood memories to snapshots of marriage and parenthood to seemingly trivial incidents from her life. She probes these small events with curiosity and close attention, infusing them with significance. Recurrent themes include grief, faith, and intimacy. Several pieces address the nature of memory as Fennelly questions the attitudes and perspectives of her memories of certain events. 

Heating & Cooling is a good, quick, summer read that is a refreshing new take on memoir and also very funny.

Secret Marvels of the World

This is another of Lonely Planet's publications, and it describes, as indicated in the subtitle, 360 Extraordinary Places You Never Knew Existed and How to Find Them. Most of the places in this book I 'never knew existed,' but I'm not so sure I would want to know 'how to find' some of them. I did enjoy paging through this book, learning about pink lakes in Senegal and Australia; The Karoo in South Africa, where one can see a giant South African flag the size of 66 soccer fields; the Billionth Barrel Monument in Brunei, which celebrates a milestone in oil drilling; and Tashirojima, Japan, which is an island on which cats outnumber humans six to one. There are American sites as well, such as the Lunchbox Museum In Columbus, Georgia; Carhenge near Alliance, Nebraska, which has non-working automobiles set up like Stonehenge; and the world's largest maze on the Dole Pineapple Plantation, about 40 minutes from Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. All in all, this is a fun volume to explore.

Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy

Here's another book that's good either for browsing or for reading all the way through. English author Harford has in this volume written a chapter of five or six pages about 50 inventions that shaped the modern economy. I was not surprised to find that all this takes place in exactly 50 chapters. Included are many obvious inventions, like the elevator, air conditioning, clocks, paper, batteries, etc.  But there are also many that I never would have thought to be inventions, although I have to acknowledge that they were, like management consulting, intellectual property, tax havens, and insurance. The fact that this book is written in a breezy, entertaining way makes it appealing to a wide range of audiences.

The Ghosts of the Past: Annie's Ghosts

When I recommend books to patrons, I don't normally recommend the latest book. I normally recommend the books that I keep going back to. This book isn't a classic, but I've probably read it 3 times. Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret is the true story of Steve Luxenberg's journey to find out about his mother's sister, a sister that his mother only revealed upon her deathbed. The book is Steve's journey to learn more about this aunt, condemned to a mental institution, and the family her never spoke of her. Luxenberg explores life in 1940s and 1950s Detroit and in Eloise, the institution to which is Aunt was committed.


Those who are familiar with writer/comedian/actor John Hodgman's previous books of fake facts may be surprised by Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches. (Those who are not familiar with his books may recognize him as the PC from the Apple television commercials or from his appearances on The Daily Show.) Rather than tongue-in cheek, Vacationland is an honest, humble, and heartfelt--yet still very funny--memoir of loosely connected essays, which do concern various vacation escapades but also wander into many other topics. In addition to recounting the mishaps of home-ownership, country life, and being a weird dad, Hodgman offers his personal insights on adolescence, only children, bullying, becoming an adult (or not), grief, and his own race and class privilege. 

I listened to the Vacationland audiobook (available on Overdrive) which is read by Hodgman himself. I usually prefer audiobooks narrated by the author, particularly ones by humorists (another good one is Jessi Klein's You'll Grow Out of It), and as I hoped, Hodgman's dry and self-deprecating humor really shines through in his reading.

Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me

My favorite graphic novels tell true stories. I especially like reading graphic memoirs and learning about other people’s lives.

In Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me: a graphic memoir, Lorina Mapa combines the personal and political, weaving together past and present: her father's death, her teen years and her family's experience with the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines. Music had a big influence on teenaged Mapa. She obsessed about many bands and songs, one day playing Duran Duran’s “Tiger Tiger” 27 times in a row, till her brother threatened to throw the tape deck out the window! On a more serious note, most of her family engaged in the campaign to successfully elect Corazon Aquino and remove dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. The death of her father several years later brought all the memories back; her graphic novel brings them to life for her readers.

Bonus: the last pages include a discography of Mapa’s 1980's music favorites as a teen!

Let’s Talk About Death

In the US, death is hidden from the public eye. When people are sick or aged, they go to a hospital or nursing home. When people die, their bodies are taken discretely to the morgue, and then to a funeral home. The average American will only see a dead person in the context of a funeral, or if they are witness to some tragedy.

In “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” Caitlin Doughty pulls back the sheet (pun intended) on the death industry, specifically about her first job at a crematorium, and attending mortuary school. Through her experiences she contemplates how our separation from death has given us knew fears and anxieties, as well as given funeral homes control over our death traditions. She ends stating her intention to changing the funeral industry to allow us to be more directly involved with caring for our dead.

In her follow-up book “From here to eternity: traveling the world to find the good death” Caitlin travels to the world to observe the different rituals around death. She emphasizes that what is considered proper and respectful to the dead in one culture might be off-putting and disturbing to another. For instance, we shy away from open funeral pyres and natural burial, while many cultures would consider the embalming process of the US horrifying. What she believes is important is to be present and involved in the death process, as it is important to our grieving process and to honor the dead.

Learn more about Caitlin Doughty at Ask a Mortician and Order of the Good Death.

The Heart is a Shifting Sea

Elizabeth Flock knows that the wedding day isn't the final destination in a love story, it's where the journey actually beginsThe Heart is a Shifting Sea follows the true love stories of three different couples in modern India who agreed to let Flock peer into their lives. There's Veer and Maya, the modern, professional couple whose union is being tested by Maya's drive for independence, Shahzad and Sabeena, a Muslim couple trying for a child amid religious attacks against their community and social unrest, and Ashok and Parvati, a couple matched for an arranged marriage. Will their marriage of convenience grow into true love?  

It's fascinating to watch these couples grow;  each day learning more about each other and what it takes to keep their marriage together in a rapidly changing country. It's non-fiction, but it reads like a romance novel, and honestly, what more could you ask of a book?  

Stirring the Pot with Benjamin Franklin

Here's a nice cookbook with a good dose of history included, or it might be called a history book with recipes. Benjamin Franklin was famous for his interest and expertise in many fields. I didn't know that one of them happened to be cooking. In this book from the Smithsonian, the author describes Franklin's interest in food and the place it had in his life. She goes into lots of detail, such as what the kitchens he designed were like, how much he valued American corn and other local foods, and how he championed healthy eating habits. There are 62 recipes here. Some of them I would never even try to prepare (or eat), like ox-cheek stew, but there are others that don't sound too bad, like lemon ice cream or apple marmalade. All recipes are updated for use with modern appliances and utensils. This hybrid volume represents an excellent effort by Rae Katherine Eighmey, author, food historian, and cook.