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Staff Picks: Books

Furiously Happy!

Furiously Happy is the second book by Jenny Lawson, who is known on The Internet as The Bloggess. If you haven’t read any of her work, I suggest starting with her blog about Why you should learn to pick your battles. (Warning: Article contains swear words. So do the books. Lots of swear words.)

The tagline for Furiously Happy is “A funny book about horrible things”, and that’s exactly what it is. Lawson gives us an honest inside look at what living with a severe depression and anxiety feels like. She puts on display all the ugly and sad feelings, but also shows us how to live life fully. As always, the best part of her writing is the stories about her bizarre daily adventures, and antidotes about her dysfunctional-yet-loving relationship with her husband Victor.

I recommend this book to people who suffer from anxiety themselves, and anyone who wants to understand those who do.

Kalamazoo Community Mental Health wants to reduce the stigma of mental health. Learn more here.

A Flag Worth Dying For

Some time ago I wrote in this space about the book Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything about the World. Now comes author Tim Marshall with another book. This one is called A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols. In nine chapters Marshall gives histories of many of the world’s flags as well as anecdotes that make these histories interesting. I especially appreciated the color flag illustrations, particularly those of the many new countries that have evolved in the last quarter century. More than detailed accounts, these chapters analyze the symbolism and emotional impact the sight of a flag has on those who view it. According to Geographical magazine, ‘This might be the comprehensive flag volume we’ve all been waiting for – a slick yet detailed and well-researched journey through some of the world’s most infamous and interesting flags. Marshall guides us through this myriad of stories admirably.’


Incredible Bugs!

While shelving new children’s non-fiction books, I discovered Superstats: Incredible Bugs, part of the Superstats book series. The bright, clear photographs, surrounded by fun and interesting facts about insects, spiders, and other tiny creatures, immediately took me in. With quality images like a Dorling Kindersley “DK” book, and being full of factoids like a Guinness World Records book, I consider this book a winner. While Incredible Bugs’ suggested reader age range is 7-10 / grades 2-4, sharing the large photographs and more basic fun facts may be enjoyable to younger readers as well.

Locking Up Our Own

When it comes to mass incarceration, the most important book, in my opinion, is The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. But Locking Up Our Own takes a close second, being a very important supplement to the narrative that Michelle Alexander sets up. History shows that mass incarceration—regardless of intentions or personal prejudice—locked up young African American males at alarming rates, and still does. Institutional racism and white supremacy are the only reasonable explanations. That is the main plot. But James Forman Jr., in Locking Up Our Own, sheds light on an important subplot: African Americans supporting, enacting, and enforcing mass incarceration policies—that is, locking up their own. Black leaders, black ministers, black judges and prosecutors, black police chiefs, black voters, and even the first black U.S. Prosecuting attorney Eric Holder supported tough-on-crime policies, partly because of classism within the black community, partly because of the heroine and crack epidemics, and mostly because they wanted safe communities. And, in their defense, most of these black leaders wanted tough-on-crime measures in addition to uplifting social and economic policies. Unfortunately, all they got was the former, not the latter.

James Forman Jr. draws on his experience as a defense attorney for Washington D.C. criminal courts. Highly readable, highly informed, highly tragic. Forman calls for a piecemeal approach to solving the problem, by slowly chipping away at the policies that got us here. In the end, he thinks any real solution requires shattering the arbitrary distinction between non-violent vs. violent criminals—a paradigm shift in thinking.

Utopia for Realists

Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, praises Utopia for Realists as “bold, fresh ideas, and lively prose.” I concur. While the big, progressive ideas are fun enough to explore—universal basic income, a 15-hour workweek, and open borders—the writing is exciting, confident, funny, entertaining, down to earth, and heavy-hitting. The author doesn’t get bogged down in the weeds and clearly has a grasp of global ideas and trends in various disciplines. I like generalists and renaissance men.

The author makes an argument for three ideas whose “time has come.” Universal Basic Income, or “giving free money to everyone,” solves poverty and allows people to transition to a future of robots replacing human work. The 15-hour workweek allows us to face a future of massive unemployment—again, because of robots doing our work. So, for example, my full-time librarian job would be split among two people, both part time. After all, the dream of robots has always been more leisure time for humans, right? So why are we working more than ever? And lastly, all countries should open their borders to everyone who wants to come in. The author believes this solves world poverty and increases the income more than anything imaginable—the statistics he shows are quite stunning.

Owls: Our Most Charming Bird

 Because they are such a rare sight, it is easy to forget how magnificent owls are. Every feature that makes us stop and stare actually serves a very useful purpose. Those large piercing eyes ensure that they’ll never lose sight of their prey. And those round moony faces actually serve as satellite dishes to capture all sound and direct it towards their ears. All the better to hear their next snack.

 Matt Sewell has captured the charm, and majesty of 47 different owls in his pleasing watercolor illustrations. Check this book out today, and discover your new favorite owl! My personal fave? The Greater Sooty Owl. They have little speckles that look like stars in a night sky.  

You Say To Brick

Anyone who has seen the moving documentary, My Architect, will know of the complicated brilliance of the architect Louis Kahn. A new biography, You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn by Wendy Lesser, fills in the detail and the greater context that aren’t possible to cover in a documentary film format. Kahn was an enigma of a man, with facial scarring from a childhood accident and often appearing disheveled from all-night drafting sessions, he was a self-described terrible businessman (his buildings were all completed late and over budget) but possessed an irresistible charisma and an almost mystical approach to architecture that left an indelible mark in his field and on the world.


I think it’s pretty safe to say that I won’t be making the trip to Yellowstone National Park anytime soon. But, I can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (albeit a few months late) with the help of this book. Subtitled A Journey through America’s Wild Heart, one finds herein a short history of the park; however, author David Quammen’s purpose in writing this book is to describe the park as it exists today. One would expect to find great photography in a publication from the National Geographic Society, and this work is no exception. The unconventional size (7” tall x 10” wide) adds to the uniqueness of this volume. For a good survey of life in today’s Yellowstone, take a look at this.

All the Wild that Remains

On my vacation trip to Utah this year, I brought along All the Wild that Remains by David Gessner. Gessner is a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and is well known for his nature writing. Although he is a New Englander, he fell in love with the West and two revered and influential writers: Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, during some time he spent there in his 20s.

In All the Wild that Remains, Gessner travels around the West to important places in Stegner’s and Abbey’s lives; sometimes interviewing old friends of theirs, and commenting on these writers’ legacies and what they taught us about living in the West.

Stegner, my favorite author, spent some of his formative years in Salt Lake City and chose to have his papers archived at the University of Utah rather than Stanford where he founded and led an outstanding writing program that boasts a long line of famous attendees such as: Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, and our other featured author, Edward Abbey. Stegner fought to preserve the wild places of the West in many ways and is best remembered in environmental circles for what is called the Wilderness Letter, which was influential in creating the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Abbey lived a wilder life and his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, was the inspiration for the creation of the environmental organization Earth First!. Many agree that his masterpiece though is the autobiographical Desert Solitaire that Abbey wrote about his time as a park ranger in Arches National Park. Unable to attend Abbey’s funeral celebration in southern Utah, Stegner sent these words for Wendell Berry to read, "He had the zeal of a true believer and a stinger like a scorpion . . . He was a red-hot moment in the life of the country, and I suspect that the half-life of his intransigence will be like that of uranium."

If you haven’t heard of either of these authors, it wouldn’t be that surprising. They were characterized as Western authors and therefore, somewhat ignored by the East Coast literati, much to Stegner’s chagrin. Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose wasn’t even reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. 

But now you know about them, so add them to your reading lists.

Government Sponsored Segregation

If anyone is curious about why people live where they live, this book is a must read. Richard Rothstein makes an irrefutable, well-researched, and well written account of how our government segregated America, created ghettos, allowed suburbs to be whites-only, and created the multi-generational problem that still exists today. Every aspect of the government was involved: federal, state, local, city commissions, non-profits, churches, community groups, administrative agencies, the police. The book expands its analysis to other kinds of discrimination that compounded segregation: whites-only unions, taxing African American homeowners more than white people, building schools to reinforce segregation, suppressing the incomes of African Americans in various ways, and physical violence towards African Americans trying to move into white neighborhoods - which the police largely ignored.

The book offers many moderate, urban planning solutions to foster integration. But he also thinks a radical solution is in order, if only we could accept as a country that the problem necessitates a remedy that matches the damage already done:

"We might contemplate a remedy like this: Considering that African Americans comprise about 15 percent of the population of the New York metropolitan area, the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of houses that come up for sale in Levittown at today's market rates (approximately $350,000). It should then resell the properties to qualified African Americans for $75,000, the price (in today's dollars) that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so. The government should enact this program in every suburban development whose construction complied with the FHA's discriminatory requirements [referring to racist FHA policy]".