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Staff Picks: Books

From Preschool to Prosperity

How can very young children help Michigan’s economy? Simple. Attend a high-quality preschool.

Really? Really!

Tim Bartik, who is an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research here in Kalamazoo, believes that our economic future can be improved by expanding high-quality early education programs and making sure that all children have the opportunity to participate. Dr. Bartik’s new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, is available as a free download here:

While economics might be a subject that can seem intimidating, if you care about kids in our community please take a look at this book. It’s short, readable, and so very important. Let’s keep working hard in Kalamazoo to make sure that all of our kids have the opportunity to reach their potential. 

Hear an interview with Dr. Bartik on WMUK’s WestSouthwest.

Norway's New Literary Star

But Knausgaard’s book is more abstract than that; it’s about more than the experience of a son. That’s because, in exploring that experience, Knausgaard has ended up exploring all experience. If being a writer is like being a swimmer, and life is like the ocean through which you swim, then Knausgaard’s book starts out being about the waves but ends up being about the stroke.—The New Yorker Magazine’s Joshua Rothman

Conceived as a multi-volume memoir (My Struggle) that possesses elements of fiction, or at the very least, creatively massaged recollections, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has emerged out of nowhere (i.e. unknown to U.S. readers) to become a literary sensation this year. His books have been compared to Proust’s magnum opus (In Search of Lost Time), his rock star-like visage has graced the pages of countless newspapers, journals and websites and he’s garnered the high praise of critics (James Wood) and fellow writers (Zadie Smith). The meteoric success and media exposure have also brought the inevitable backlashes and petty snark common to our time, with not everyone finding his meticulous descriptions of his life’s struggles worthy of their sustained interest. After reading so much of the hype, I purchased the first volume knowing that I wanted to take my sweet time reading the book and not have to worry about a due date.

First off, this kind of confessional (a term he’s distanced himself from) writing will not appeal to everyone and the length will likely be prohibitive for many but once you embrace his exhaustive commitment to detail (and detail he does) and buy into the elegant simplicity of the prose, you will find the journey rewarding. In volume one, he spends a great deal of time in plumbing the depths of his feelings toward his emotionally cold, alcoholic father, whose presence, even after death, hovers over both the teenage and adult Knausgaard like a menacing specter. As I close in on finishing the first book in the series, I cannot wait to dive into the second book. I still struggle (pun intended) to pinpoint the source of what makes the book work for me but in some strange and beguiling way, it does and maybe that’s the point, that in everyday life, the roots of transcendent storytelling are masked in ordinary toil.

Mind your own business (AKA the story of Brann's)

Growing up in Grand Rapids in the 80s and 90s, my family's "fancy" restaurant to go to was the Brann's restaurant on S. Division Ave. I would get the economizer prime rib special and a Shirley Temple to drink. Now living in the Kalamazoo area, my husband and I take our kids to the Brann's near Crossroads Mall/Celebration Cinema. With 11 locations across Michigan, Brann's is a thriving local chain. Mind your own business by Tommy Brann tells the history of Brann's restaurant, the Brann family, and shares highs and lows of running a successful restaurant/small business. Until this book came across my desk recently, I didn't know that our go-to restaurant had been opened by a 19 year old kid, just out of school at East Grand Rapids High. Available for other Fanns of Brann's to browse in our local history collection.


Poverty can't be Solved and other Myths

Philosopher Peter Singer makes a compassionate, practical and moral case that we all should be giving more to end extreme poverty - the 1/3 of people living on 2 dollars/day. But first we have to get past the myths, barriers, and excuses that we tell ourselves.

Poverty can’t be Solved 

Wrong. 28 billion would do the trick (that’s the cost of education, sanitation, and healthcare for all according to the book and the website). To put that into perspective, if all Americans gave 3 dollars—that’s a billion already. Skip the latte tomorrow—there’s another 4 dollars you could donate. Moreover, the annual income of the richest 100 people could end poverty four times over. Finally, if the richest nations of the world gave 1 percent of their income—that would end poverty too.

We Need to Fix the Deeper Issues First

Yes, that’s correct. The organizations that fight extreme global poverty (like Oxfam) agree. They fix the deeper issues. They are not dropping bags of money from airplanes.

Charities Take Your Money 

Instead of helping poor people, your money goes to “administrative” purposes instead, right? Wrong. Not if you pick good charities. This book shows you how.

Government Should Do It

Government’s clearly don’t give enough to solve the problem, and America is actually near the bottom of the list in terms of percentage of national income, as opposed to gross amount. In 2006 we gave only .18% for example. Governments could give more, and so could we.

I Give Locally

That’s great, but 1/3 of the world lives in extreme poverty. Can you imagine living on less than 2 dollars a day? It’s all about perspective. This is not the Ice Bucket Challenge here (no disrespect; that was a great and successful campaign). But children are dying on a daily basis from routine, preventable diseases. The people that live in the United States, generally speaking, are much better off.

I Need to Save for my Future

Young people (including me) are especially guilty of this. The truth, of course, is that you can invest in many things.


Learn Something New Every Day

Learn something new every day? This isn't a new concept for librarians, for whom daily enrichment goes along with the profession. But, this book presents a unique way to acquire new ideas. Subtitled '365 Facts to Fulfill Your Life,' author Malesky presents a half-page (sometimes even shorter) anecdote or story about some little-known event or concept for each day of the year. Classed in the 031 category, this book isn't really history, science, or the arts, or any one discipline, but all of the above and then some. When I checked the entry for my birthday, I found 'The Land of Fire,' in which the author talks about Tierra del Fuego, a region which today is divided between Argentina and Chile. Anyone wanting to experience a potluck of random ideas presented in an entertaining manner should check out this quirky volume.

Separated @ birth : a true love story of twin sisters reunited

This book was sooooo up my alley! Separated @ birth is about Anaïs and Sam, two young Korean women adopted and raised in France and New Jersey, respectively. Both have adoption papers from South Korea listing them as single births, so they never had any reason to think they were anything but. Until Anaïs’s friend finds a picture of actress Sam online, and the resemblance cannot be denied. Using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, the two young women with identical birthdates get in touch with each other…then they plan a Skype session, which both are nervous yet eager for. Check out the book to find out how their story continues! If you like this book, you may also like Identical strangers: memoir of twins separated and reunited (which I blogged about a couple years ago).


Oddball Michigan

The subtitle of Oddball Michigan is A Guide to 450 Really Strange Places. I take issue with the contention that the 450 attractions covered are 'really strange,' although I must say the Kalamazoo-area ones would probably qualify. I immediately turned to the local section and found the sites where Elvis was supposedly seen -- years after his death. The other Kalamazoo venue is the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport, listed because it was on this facility's parking lot that comedian Tim Allen was arrested by the Michigan State Police for trying to sell 1.4 pounds of cocaine. Among the other West Michigan sites included are the musical fountain in Grand Haven, Bear Cave in Buchanan, and the WZZM-TV Weatherball in Grand Rapids. For locations that open and close, further information is given -- phone, hours, cost, website, and directions.


Tibetan Peach Pie

It is hard to believe that the iconic counter-culture writer Tom Robbins is now an octogenarian. Yet reading his rollicking new memoir, Tibetan Peach Pie, leaves little doubt that it has been a suitably wild and unconventional 82 years. Fans of Robbins, a writer who can eke out more sheer fun and joy in a single sentence than many writers can manage in their whole career, this is a must read. For those unfamiliar with Robbins, it’s never too late to love this guy, but I might suggest that you start with some of his better known novels - Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, Even Cowgirls get the Blues, etc. – and then circle back to get the full story on Robbins.

Chickens in the Road

This Spring I read Farm City by Novella Carpenter, one of two titles that were picked for the “Reading Together” program that the library sponsors with several other organizations in the community. The book was thoroughly enjoyable and told of the author’s attempt to become an “urban farmer,” as she lived in downtown Oakland, California. Since I liked this topic so much I decided to seek out other books where people are doing the same in going back to the land and becoming self-sustaining.

My next choice was a book entitled Chickens in the Road by Suzanne McMinn. The author was previously a romance writer who after a divorce moved with her three children to rural West Virginia where some of her other relatives had lived and she had visited the area many times growing up. She depicts her struggle in adjusting to being a full time farm owner where everything she raised, crops and animals, were either eaten by her family or sold at the market.  Of course there were many struggles along the way; a partner who stopped paying his share, building a brand new home on a rather precarious piece of land, many roads that continuously flooded, and the overwhelming amount of nonstop work. When that farm was no longer manageable, she sold it and bought one more suitable to her. Through her can-do attitude and a great sense of humor, she is now not only a successful farmer, but conducts workshops at her farm for others wanting to learn all the skills connected with farming, and she writes an almost daily blog, also called Chickens in the Road, as to what’s going on in her farm life. An extra plus is that there are many wonderful pictures of the farms and her family. This book was thoroughly enjoyable and you find yourself pulling for her to succeed. And succeed she did!

400 Extraordinary Places

This book was received in the library at the end of 2012, but for those who haven't seen it, it's worth the time. In one- and two-page summaries, '400 extraordinary places' are described. Being another fine publication from National Geographic, it's a given that the photographs are of high quality. Even if one doesn't intend to travel to any of these locations, the reader can learn about, and maybe encounter for the first time, exotic places such as Torres del Paine (Chile), Fernando de Noronha (Brazil), islands in the Adriatic Sea (Croatia), Koh Lipe (Thailand), Petra (Jordan), and the Orkney Islands (Scotland), among many others. Closer to home, the book has a couple of pages on New York City and other U.S. destinations.