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Staff Picks: Books

Girl in the dark

For fellow biography lovers, here is an especially unique story. Girl in the dark : a memoir details the plight of a young woman, Anna Lyndsey, who develops an extremely rare condition where any exposure to natural or artificial light feels like a blowtorch to her skin. Thus, she must live in total darkness most of the time. She finds ways to cope and pass her time, inventing many word games to play in the dark. She often has to go to tremendous lengths to get normal life activities accomplished. The book makes you think – if you’re like me, you’ll be imagining all sorts of inventions that could help protect her from light. This is an inspiring story that leaves you appreciating some of the mundane things you complain about in everyday life.

 


The Magic Mirror

Kamara had a hard day at school. One of the boys called her names and used some nasty words talking about her. The one bright spot is that she is on her way to gramma’s house. Kamara knew that gramma would make her feel better. And gramma did. Gramma sent Kamara to clean the mirror upstairs. It was a mirror that had been passed down from her great grandmother to her grandmother and it turned out to be a magic mirror. When Kamara started rubbing the mirror she saw another young girl’s eyes staring back at her.  Through the eyes of women throughout the past centuries Kamara was able to see the violence, hatred and poverty that women of color have faced throughout history. Through it Kamara sees humiliation and determination. She sees pride, beauty and courage.  

There is a lot of history in this very small book. In The Magic Mirror Zetta Elliott does an amazing job of teaching history and courage. She sends the message to young girls that they are not alone.


Being Mortal

 “You don’t need to sacrifice your autonomy just because you need help in your life.”

This is one of the many pearls of wisdom I took from Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a book I’ve been hearing about from others for several months now. Whether facing one’s own sickness, old age, and/or frailty, or caring for someone else’s, this volume poses important questions we might all ask. Gawande, a physician who cites examples from both his professional and personal experience, looks at the truths of human nature that can make the caregiving process—and possible end-of-life realities—less cause for fear and anxiety than it often is.   

More questions/concerns to ponder:
• What makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? (p. 92)
• Human beings have a need for both privacy and community, for flexible daily rhythms and patterns, and for the possibility of forming caring relationships with those around them. (p. 131)

And finally:
• A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives. (p. 282)


Islamic Reformation

For people who respect all world religions, including Islam, this book will be hard to read. Indeed it was for me. It tells the tale of heartbreaking atrocities done in the name of religion, but then goes on to say, as a more generalized theoretical argument, that Islam itself has major problems, that the religion of Islam is violent, that it needs a Reformation like Christianity had. The author, raised in Somalia as a Muslim, has a brutal and oppressive childhood story. Running away to the Netherlands, she divorced her native religion and embraced Western culture and ideas. From there, Dutch Parliament, fellow at Harvard, bestselling author, 100 most influential people in the world according to Time. She has a voice. Here, she calls for a complete Reformation of Islam. And she means it: Stop taking the Koran so seriously, stop taking Muhammed so seriously, stop taking the afterlife so seriously, and forget about Sharia and Jihad. Those are her main suggestions.

If you read this book, I would also suggest comparing it with the thought of Reza Aslan, who has a much more nuanced and complex view regarding Islam, violence, and socio-political considerations. Islam, after all, has over a billion converts all over the world. Therefore, to make any sweeping generalizations about it is virtually impossible. The Islam of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is not the Islam of India, or America, or Turkey.


Station Eleven

"Because survival is insufficient."

With those words (amusingly taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) as their creed, the remnants of a near-future worldwide epidemic attempt to not only survive, but also maintain their humanity. Station Eleven presents several overlapping stories, spanning decades both pre- and post-apocalypse, all revolving around washed-up actor Arthur Leander, who dies onstage during a performance of King Lear moments before the beginning of the epidemic that ends civilization.

Like The Road with a (marginally) more optimistic outlook on life, or the world of Mad Max populated by theater majors instead of post-nuclear mutants, Station Eleven asks what it means to truly be human in a landscape where humanity is severely diminished. A significant portion of the book follows a nomadic theater troupe as they wander between the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare while fighting off bandit attacks and foraging for food. The most quietly devastating section, however, is the last third of the novel, taking place at a small airport in Indiana where the last remnants of humanity slowly congregate, complete with all of its' struggles and triumphs realized in miniature.

Quiet and contemplative, and beautiful as it is brutal, Station Eleven is a welcome and refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic disaster genre.

 


Making Everyday Electronics Work

Making Everyday Electronics Work is a do-it-yourself introductory guide to fixing and maintaining all things electronic. The strength of the book isn't only in getting information on how to fix specific kinds of gadgets. In fact, the title obscures the book's great strength: providing an overview of how electricity works. Instead of a cookbook reference to fixing a handful of electrical systems, here's an explanation of how electrical systems work from generation to consumption. We get a welcome explanation of all of those power line components that take electricity from the power plant to your toaster. As advertised, however, there are entire sections on tools and tests for understanding wireless devices, electronics in your vehicle and much more. It's not a big book and it's not exhaustive, but Making Everyday Electronics Work answers lots of big questions and provides a great introduction to deeper exploration.


California

I recently picked up author Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California from the Central library’s Library Reads display after seeing its cool cover there for several weeks. I’m happy to report that I have yet to be disappointed by the quality of any of the Library Reads selections that I have read and California is certainly no exception to that rule. California follows the story Micah and Cal, newlywed twenty-something Los Angeles residents, as they flee the city and the seemingly imminent total collapse of civilization for the northern California wilderness. What they find in that wilderness and how they survive will weave together their personal and family histories with more and more mystery and complexity being added along the way to keep you wildly turning the pages until the very end.


Float

In Float we have a wordless picture book about a boy, a folded paper boat, and a storm. Even without words, though, we also have a story about creation, play, loss, comfort, delight, and tenderness.

Take a close look at this small book and then marvel at how Daniel Miyares can give us a complete story with only his wonderful pictures.

 


Swing Sisters

Swing Sisters: the Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a new picture book written by Karen Deans and illustrated by Joe Cepeda, tells the story of the first racially integrated, all-female swing band in the United States. The Sweethearts' story begins with the founding, in 1909, of the Piney Woods Country Life School for African-American orphans in Mississippi. In 1939 the school's founder, Laurence Clifton Jones, started a school band that he thought could help raise money for the school. By the 1940s the band was traveling across the country and, in 1945, even played a six-month tour in Europe for American troops stationed there. The band grew to include girls and women of different racial backgrounds, including Chinese, Mexican, Native American, and white. Because of Jim Crow laws barring socialization between different races, this was a dangerous prospect when the band played in southern states.

Swing Sisters is a great introduction to this unique American treasure. If you want to hear the music of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, you can download some of their hits from Freegal with your library card.

 


At the Water's Edge

This new title by Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, is another well written period novel, this time World War II in a small village in the Scottish Highlands.

It is a love story, an examination of the impact of war on a naïve young woman, the search for the Loch Ness monster, and a husband’s spiral into self-deception. At times the story is quite believable, others times it is a stretch. I did keep reading to the end though.

I consider this a good beach read, better than many of that unofficial genre.