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Staff Picks: Books

Our Better Angels

How would you react in the face of a disaster that left thousands homeless and wiped out essential city services in Kalamazoo for weeks on end? Rebecca Solnit takes a look at some major disasters over the past century or so and reports on some of the grassroots communities that emerged to provide relief in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell.

Focusing on the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a horrific explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina she reports that government officials and wealthy power brokers have often turned resources towards protecting property and policing the disaster area because of fears that the public’s reaction will be to turn savage and live out some Mad Max survival of the fittest scenario. 

Although there are some people who take advantage of the situation, she finds that there are more people who come together to form impromptu communities to provide relief and comfort for those in need. I enjoyed reading about these temporary utopias that emerge from these disasters and bring out our “better angels.”

Holiday Pile

The end of the year brings a myriad of “Best of…” lists. I love to check these lists against what I have already read, listened to or watched. Then I immediately check out the titles that sound most interesting to me. Soon there is a HUGE pile of stuff I need to investigate over the Holiday Season. 

One of my favorite lists is KPL Staff Picks: Best of 2014. It is so much fun to read what my colleagues enjoyed the most over the past year.

Below is a list of books, CDs and DVDs that have been added to the pile.




Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Skink…No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen


LP1 by FKA Twigs

Wine Dark Sea by Jolie Holland


The Punk Singer


Orphan Black

Has any title found its way to your Holiday pile?

No Place to Hide

No matter what your personal opinions on Edward Snowden, or his actions, are; Glenn Greenwald’s account of breaking the Snowden story, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance state, is gripping stuff. Greenwald, a journalist who has subsequently become synonymous with the Snowden leaks and hasn’t been shy about offering his strong opinion on the blanket NSA surveillance they exposed, spends the first half of No Place to Hide detailing the cloak and dagger story of his first contact with Snowden and the events that led to Greenwald flying to Hong Kong to meet Snowden personally and release the initial secret documents that broke the story worldwide. The second half of the book is devoted to explaining the alphabet soup of secret NSA programs that Snowden’s documents exposed. These surveillance programs effectively try to sweep up and collect all communications and internet activity worldwide and their breadth and depth is downright shocking. Viewed as evidence that we are living under a dangerous surveillance state or proof that our government is fighting terrorism by any means necessary, No Place to Hide is an eye opening and incisive read.

Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic

Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic By Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Victor Juhasz.

When is it not hot dog season – they really aren’t just for summer picnics anymore, but that was a different case in 1939.

In June of 1939, the United States had 2 very special guests visit - King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. It was the first visit of reigning British Royalty. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to take the opportunity to extend a warm welcome. She had the idea to celebrate the visit with an all American picnic complete with hot dogs. Mrs. Roosevelt loved hot dogs. She loved to eat them and to cook them on the grill. She was famous in her family for her hot dog roasts.

Usually entertaining in the White House meant fancy dinners – hot dogs were never served. Eleanor discovered that Queen Elizabeth was a distant cousin of George Washington. With this news, she decided an all American picnic was in order and really – what is a picnic without roasted hot dogs! Mrs. Roosevelt planned the picnic to take place at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, New York. President Roosevelt was just happy she wasn’t serving spinach. But not everyone agreed with Mrs. Roosevelt’s menu – lots of people didn’t think hot dogs were appropriate- however she stuck up for herself.

On June 11, 1939 the Roosevelt’s hosted the picnic. The hot dogs were served on fancy silver trays. The King ate seconds. The picnic was a success. On June 11, 1989, the 50th anniversary picnic was held. The Queen sent a special message. And what do you think was on the picnic menu…


What a fun book to share with just enough history mixed with the humor of serving hot dogs. Don’t wait until summer to read it.


A Southern Page-Turner

Natchez Burning is not my usual kind of book, but once I started reading, I couldn’t put down. 

The story is centered in Natchez, Mississippi, and shifts between the 1960’s and the present. The respected town doctor is accused of murdering his former nurse, an African-American woman who returned to Natchez after many years of living up north.

As one reviewer has written, there are racial politics, family secrets, corruption, racism, almost unbelievable brutality, and fear, much centering on a fringe KKK sect.

In spite of its length, it is a real page-turner. I have seen it listed on several “best of the year” lists. Although it won’t make my best-of list, it is good read, a book in which a reader can get totally lost.


The Right Word, Roget and His Thesaurus

This lively illustrated biography of Peter Mark Roget is written for children, yet it is smooth, easy reading for adults. I like the list of Principal Events at the back of the book beginning with Peter’s birth on January 18, 1779, in London, England. Roget is pronounced “Roh-Zhay”. Roget is known for writing a Thesaurus, a book containing lists of synonyms (same) and antonyms (opposite) words for finding just the right word. Roget’s Thesaurus provides many ideas. When he told his mother that he was FINE he wanted a better word to describe how he really was, for example: glad, cheerful, dandy, so-so, and splendid.
When Peter was five years old, his father died. He and his younger sister and his mother moved around often and that made it difficult to make new friends. Peter found a friend in books. When Peter was eight years old he started to write his own book, but he didn’t write stories, he wrote lists. He made a list of the Latin words he’d learned from his tutor and next to the Latin word he wrote the English meaning. For example, Ursus is a bear, Volpes is a fox, can you guess what Leo is?
Peter learned that Words were powerful things and when he put them in long neat rows, the world clicked into order! Peter continued working on his book of word lists, then, in 1852 Roget published his Thesaurus, (a word that means “treasure house” in Greek). Peter was suddenly a popular author! However, Peter remained humble and he continued making new lists so that today you can still find the right word!



A young girl pleads with her mother for a pet. Her mother finally agrees, saying any pet is fine, as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed. A pretty tall order….

Sparky is the wonderful new picture book by Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhaus that details how the young girl selects a sloth as her chosen pet. Sparky can’t fetch, chase a ball, or roll over. But he is great at playing dead, and he has other unexpected attributes, as his young owner soon discovers.

Expressive pictures pair perfectly with the story, making for a satisfying picture book for the younger set.

Women who…. Read, Inspire, Lead, Encourage, Motivate, Assist, Teach, Inform

The ladies of the Saturday Eves’ Book Club have been meeting since 1968. They have met together for 45 years and while meeting all have agreed that one of their goals would be to make a difference in Kalamazoo as a group. Another goal was to write a book telling their collective stories. Their accomplishments are numerous. They have a united goal to Read, Inspire, Lead, Encourage, Motivate, Assist, Teach and Inform and their ultimate goal has been to address community issues, mentor children and to take on the challenge of making a real commitment to each other and their communities. This book addresses their individual achievements, life challenges, backgrounds and dedications. There are many great stories in this book that address decades of local and worldly influences and contributions to making this one of the oldest and most influential African American book clubs in Kalamazoo.

The Public Library

Here's a 2014 book on a subject that's close to my heart. It's a 'photographic essay' about the public library, and has quality photographs of a wide variety of libraries, both active and abandoned, around the nation. Interspersed with the pictures are essays by noted authors. One of these I especially like is the essay called 'What the Library Means to Me,' written by author Amy Tan when she was only eight years old. Among others who reflect on the book that Toni Morrison calls 'profound and heartbreakingly beautiful' are Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, and even Dr. Seuss.

Once Upon an Alphabet

Once Upon an Alphabet, by Oliver Jeffers, is one of my favorite alphabet books for kids (but also really fun for adults) since The Alphabet from A to Y with bonus letter, Z! by Steve Martin and Roz Chast. Some alphabet books, like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, are perfect for introducing the alphabet to little ones in an engaging way. But alphabet books aren’t only for teaching the ABCs. Leonard Marcus wrote, in an article in The Horn Book, that “the 26 character Roman alphabet could hardly be handier as a framework for organizing information within a thirty-two-page book, the standard picture book format”.
This organizational format has long worked for adults, too. Ambrose Bierce’s classic work of American satire The Devil’s Dictionary works well because you can open anywhere and read within the familiar framework of A to Z order. Alphabet picture books can be about anything or, like Seinfeld, about nothing at all. Alphabet books are so familiar that, in a way, they have earned the privilege of being able to poke fun at themselves. Once Upon an Alphabet is a series of short stories with really wonderful accompanying drawings. The connections between the words and the text, and among the different entries, is great fun. Plus there are even a few puzzles to solve along the way. And even though this alphabet book isn’t really about anything at all it’s really fun!