Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
In this beautifully-designed book, historian Albert Marrin looks at the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. He combines excellent discussions about prairie ecology, political decisions, and the potential for a recurrence; but what really sets this book apart are the haunting photographs. These photos, many by Dorothea Lange, reinforce the desperation and bleakness of the "Dirty Thirties." Pair this with Karen Hesse's novel Out of the Dust for a striking look back at this time.
Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl
Swoosh Crackle Chug Beep --
These are a few of the onomatopoeia words that imitate sounds associated with the objects or actions referred to in this children's book called Snow Sounds (An Onomatopoeic Story) by author & illustrator David A. Johnson. I was pleased to find he adds this definition to the outside back cover. This is one of those delightful random picks that I spotted based on the eye-catching artwork. The 30 pages of watercolor art take us on a journey starting with the hush of snowfall as child and cat snore and purr sleepily the morning of December 23. The story goes back and forth from inside the house to what’s happening outside the house. As the first county plow clears a main road it is still very dark outside and the artist depicts the quiet early morning with muted and speckled blues and grays. It is his use of white as with the headlights, house windows, the tree with lights in the front yard and, of course, the snow that makes the scenes and the progression of morning come alive. Eventually the paths are all cleared and it’s time to get on the bus for school. Mom rushes out to her son getting on the bus as he’s forgotten to take a little gift to school with him. A big smile on his face, it looks like it's going to be a good day. The last page reveals the gift but I think the gift is really for us. Grin grin.
The sub-genre of science fiction known as Steampunk seems like such a rich environment to write in, it hardly needs anything more to make it even better. That hasn't stopped Scott Westerfeld from doing just that, however. Westerfeld's new teen novel Leviathan takes the brass, gears, and steam and adds on an assortment of biological weapons to create an world as exciting as it is bizarre.
Leviathan sets up an alternate history that, at first glance, seems very much like our own. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife are assassinated, setting off a chain of events that eventually leads to the First World War. So far, pretty similar- but in Leviathan's universe, the warring factions are split between the mechanized Clankers and the flesh-and-blood Darwinists. Naturally, the names are a giveaway to the types of technology each side prefers. The Clankers build hulking steam-powered war machines, which vary in size from a small car(bristling with machine guns) to a walking aircraft carrier. On the other side, the Darwinists prefer to use genetic engineering to create their biological weapons such as the title creature, a blimp-sized mixture of whale, jellyfish, lizards, and all sorts of other creatures into a living flying fortress. Westerfeld is no stranger to biological tinkering, having examined similar themes with his Uglies series, and his descriptions of the Darwinist creations are particularly effective (and, it must be said, somewhat revolting). The dual storyline splits between Alek, a fictional son of the Archduke's who escapes from Austria in the nick of time; and Deryn, a British girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to join the Darwinist air force. When the two sides meet in the middle of the Swiss Alps, Westerfeld expertly merges the two storylines and manages to keep the story moving forward at an explosive pace. The first in a four-part series, Leviathan easily leaves readers wanting more and will appeal to all teen sci-fi fans.
The book that meant the most to me this year was actually first published in 1992.
When my father was dying of lung cancer last spring, it seemed like every book I touched had something to do with serious illness and/or dying, even when there was nothing in the description to warn me death might be part of the contents. At first I resisted. I'd stop reading a book if I even sniffed sadness or death. After a while, I gave into it, figuring maybe I needed a way to process my grief, and to know that I wasn't alone in this experience of supporting a loved one to the other side.
About that time, a friend told me about Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. Once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. Written by two hospice nurses who have witnessed the dying process of many patients with terminal illness, Final Gifts describes how dying people can develop a sense of what is happening to them, communicate this to their loved ones and take control of how and when they go. Callanan and Kelley give several case histories to illustrate what they describe, and the book reads easily. It helped me approach Dad’s dying experience with a broader spiritual understanding, more hope and less confusion. It also gave me the courage to keep trying to communicate with him, when what he said was often confusing, and after he became unable to talk with us. I recommend Final Gifts to anyone with a loved one who has (or had) a terminal illness.
Final Gifts: Understanding the special awareness
One of my Best of 2009 titles is The Help, a debut novel by Kathryn Stockett. This historical fiction novel takes place during the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s and is an exploration of the southern culture of black maids raising the children in white families. There are 3 narrators. Eugenia is a naive white girl, a budding social activist who is home from college with a journalism degree. She doesn't subscribe to the racist attitudes that surround her and she decides to write a book about the experiences of maids in the community. Abileen is a black maid who has raised 17 white children and shares her experiences with Eugenia, and Minny, also a maid, is a sassy tell-it-like-it-is backtalker who constantly loses jobs.
This book offers a unique point-of-view perspective. The 1960s is a free South but still has the conditions of black servitude a century after the Civil War. It reveals the power of white women who trust black maids to raise their children yet despise them and can control their lives-even ruin them. This is also a story that runs the full gamut of emotions without being melodramatic. It is one of that small group of books you read where you get to the end of the book and you don't want it to end. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will thoroughly enjoy this book.
The Day the Falls Stood Still is an epic love story in one sense. It is set in the Niagara Falls area during World War I, and centers on a family who has fallen on hard times, a disgraced father, and a resulting tragedy.
The setting, however, is the “real” story to me. It is loosely based on a historical figure and details the history of the falls during the beginning of hydro-electrical power. It outlines the struggle between those wanting to preserve the falls, the environmentalists of the day, and those wanting to harness the falls for electricity. The argument for development is based on progress and jobs in a depressed economy, along with industrial greed.
This first novel by Cathy Buchanan is a satisfying combination of history and a good, almost old fashioned, family story set against the backdrop of Niagara Falls.
The Day the Falls Stood Still
Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge is a "novel in stories". It is in fact, a series of 13 stories. The novel is set in Crosby, Maine a similar Northeast setting as Strout's other titles Abide With Me and Amy and Isabelle. Olive is a junior high teacher who lives in Crosby with her husband, Greg a pharmacist, and son, Christopher. Not all the stories focus on Olive and her life as they are centered on the town of Crosby, but she is the link. We accompany Olive through close to 30 years as she struggles through this thing we call life and all its challenges with love, bad communication, aging, raising children, depression, lonliness, and loss.
This is a novel about how we think life is going to be and then the harsh realilties of what really plays out. It asks the questions do we ever really know someone and do we ever really know ourselves? Strout's mastery is in how she writes about and through the layers of human emotions and interpersonal relationships, about the universal message of what it is to be deeply human in all its messy imperfections. Short stories are something readers either love or hate. Either way, I encourage you to try this book as it keeps you reading into the next and the next story. Olive Kitteridge is another one of my Best Fiction of 2009 titles!
Of course, the best and most economical way to enjoy these wonderful nonfiction books would be to use your library card (or buy one for a non-resident user) but if you're engaged in some last minute holiday shopping, try these for the friend or family member who loves to read books about history, science, cooking, philosophy, current events, memoir, or poetry.
The Dawn of the Color Photograph by David Okuefuna
I read this novel several weeks ago. Some books are pretty much gone from your mind as soon as the last page is read. However, "Heroic Measures: a Novel" by Jill Ciment is one of those books that I find myself thinking about still.
The action is telescoped into a long winter weekend in New York City, and the plot is simple. Alex and Ruth Cohen, a couple in their 70's, have set up an open house to try and sell their apartment, where they have lived for all 45 years of their married life, Ruth is a retired English teacher, and Alex an artist, whose current project is illuminating the pages of their fairly lengthy FBI files from years ago. Childless, Ruth and Alex have an aging dachshund named Dorothy, whose legs suddenly won't function, and Dorothy requires immediate veterinary attention. At about the same time, a tanker truck jackknifes in the Midtown tunnel, and speculation grows that it's a terrorist plot to blow up the tunnel and create havoc in the city.
Alex and Ruth set out on foot with Dorothy to reach the animal clinic, in a city snarled in traffic because of the tanker truck stuck in the tunnel. Residents are afraid and unsure, despite(or possible because of) ongoing sensational TV coverage. The apartment open house goes forward, with a variety of potential buyers parading through.
Various subplots run parallel to one another, weaving intricately together to show many different points of view. The story has humor, which sounds amazing given the serious plot elements, and it has wonderful, unforgettable characters.
This is a quick read, a jewel in a small package. I'll be searching out more books by this author.
In Stillwater, Mississippi, the much beloved Reverend Lee Barker has been missing for 19 years. Some people say he just got in his car and drove away. But most of the townspeople suspect that his widow and stepchildren murdered him and buried his body somewhere on the farm. Why would they suspect Grace? She would have only been 13 years old! How could she have had anything to do with it? They also suspect his gold digging widow, who, after all, was not good enough for the righteous reverend. And then there was Clay, the rebellious teenager, who now carries a big gun and waves a big fist trying to keep people from digging up the past.
Well, I don’t want to give too much away! Dead Silence is the first book in Brenda Novak’s trilogy. Dead Giveaway and Dead Right completes the series.