Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
It hardly seems possible that I wrote about the biographical American Presidents Series in this space four years ago this month, the last time there was a Leap Year Day. It was the month of Presidents’ Day and a presidential election was not far off. The issuance of books in this series has continued since then, and KPL has continued to buy them. The latest publication is on William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins. President for only one month, he does get 153 pages from Ms. Collins. I enjoyed the very positive review that appeared in last Sunday’s Kalamazoo Gazette. With only about five or six of these left to go, John F. Kennedy is up next. I'll write again when the series is completed. It shouldn't take another four years.
William Henry Harrison
It was just a coincidence that I read Timothy Egan’s book about the Dust Bowl called The Worst Hard Time right after finishing Empire of the Summer Moon : Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history by Samuel Gwynne, but I’m glad I did. They are both histories of the same piece of land; mostly the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, with one picking right up where the other left off.
Empire of the Summer Moon details the battles between the southern Plains Indians and the new white settlers, but does not report much on why the new settlers were coming or U.S. public policy that encouraged the movement West. You just see more coming and witness the subduing of the Native Americans, which was aided most by the wholesale killing of the bison that roamed the plains and supported the southern Plains Indian culture for centuries.
In The Worst Hard Time you learn that white settlers were drawn West by false claims made by railroad companies and others hoping to get rich along with the U.S. government giving away land to those willing to relocate. Many of the first settlers see the hopelessness of farming in that area of the country and leave, causing the railroads to lure people from other countries like Russia to settle in the area. A couple of good years of rain, guaranteed prices for wheat during World War I and people were plowing up the buffalo grass of the plains at an alarming rate. When dry years returned and the price of wheat dropped, the land was left unplanted, subject to the strong winds of the Plains. The great storms of the Dust Bowl were a man-made natural disaster.
It was stunning to think that in just 40 short years from when the last group of Comanches agreed to settle on their reservation land, their ancestral lands that they had lived on for centuries were destroyed.
Empire of the Summer Moon
I typically don’t read science-fiction, but kudos to Leigh, who also “doesn’t read sci-fi,” and nevertheless insisted I not miss The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
In Panem (formerly North America,) there are 12 districts surrounding the ruling Capitol. One male and one female teenage tribute from each district are chosen via lottery by the Capitol to fight till death in the Hunger Games. No one outside the Capitol is exempt from the lottery. If a starving family needs food, they may receive extra grain and oil, in exchange for submitting their child’s name an extra time into the lottery pool.
The games are staged much like the TV show, Survivor, except being ‘voted off’ means you literally just got killed by another tribute. The games are conducted for the supposed entertainment of residents of the Capitol, yet they are required viewing for all districts to watch. The GameMakers create an ‘arena,’ a natural-looking area with foliage, climate control, wild animals. They can manipulate conditions to force the participants into hardship, thereby upping the ante, when there’s not enough exciting action for the viewers.
The story of The Hunger Games mirrors many of the realities of war. Selected tributes have no choice but to fight. Rich districts can afford to train and outfit their tributes better. Poor families lose disproportionately more of their children to the games. In the end, everyone loses: most tributes die and the survivors suffer injuries, guilt, addictions and/or mental breakdowns.
The heroine, Kat, is strong, clever and determined. There are a few heroes in the story, really, who display compassion and wisdom. It’s a hard book to put down, so make extra room in your reading schedule, once you land a copy of the book. One final warning: The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy by the same name. You may get hooked to read all three titles in the series!
The Hunger Games
Leo and Diane Dillon have been illustrating children’s books together for most of their married life. They are icons in the world of children’s books. Patricia McKissack is also revered in the same world. Together, these talented folks have given us Never Forgotten, the story of Musafa, who was taken captive, sent across the sea, and sold into slavery.
Richly illustrated with oil paintings that look like woodcuts, this is lyrical story reminds readers that family is more important than anything and that our ancestors are with us always.
This book won a well-deserved Coretta Scott King Honor Award this year.
This book is a nice way to enter into the great American conversation, the great American experiment, hopes and fears, modes of thought, movements, tragedies, and great people. If you don't get a chance to read these books--Of Plymouth Plantation, The Federalist Papers, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The Journals of Lewis and Clark,Walden, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Souls of Black Folk, The Promised Land, On the Road, Feminine Mystique--then I especially recommend reading this overview of them. For each book, Parini gives a brief section on the history of the books publication, the author, what the book is about, and it's lasting impression on America. Very readable, and the themes flow together in an amazing way.
We start with a small band of pilgrims landing on the coast of America, a great new experiment! then three "anonymous" Founders arguing for the existence of a federal government; then the amazing accomplishments of Franklin, a real Enlightenment, dabling in everything, pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps man; then Manifest Destiny; then escaping to the woods to reclaim your identity and get rid of your stuff; then the horrors of slavery brought to light; then Twain unleashes his writing genuis; then black folk are not in chains, but still not free; then mass immigration and the promise of American freedom; then the Beat Poet's re-finding meaning in a world of destruction; and finally the "second wave" of women's rights, women who can vote but are chained to the home.
Also check the back of the book for 100 more reading ideas (Common Sense, Democracy in America, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Nature, Moby Dick, Leaves of Grass, Up from Slavery, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions...to name a few).
"One of those writers who possess an uncanny and seemingly otherworldly understanding of the human condition . . . Chaon [is] a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness, much in the tradition of Richard Yates, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson. . . . These stories are to be savored.”—San Francisco Chronicle
Dan Chaon’s newest collection of short stories Stay Awake has simply blown me away. Not since Raymond Carver has a writer with such skill and command, brought to such penetrating light, the sadness and despair of the richly drawn characters that dot his stories. His emotionally striking yet undertstated fiction will haunt and stay with you long after you’ve finished reading them. Chaon is not a particularly stylistic writer but rather one of the naturalist tradition. We see in his richly drawn characters a real desire to break free of their life’s constraints, be they social or psychic. However, there are fewer happy endings in Chaon’s world than you’ll find in other writers who steer clear of the kind of storytelling Chaon has mastered. Not to be missed, one of the best books of fiction you’ll read all year.
In early November of last year, I heard author David Margolick being interviewed by MSNBC’s Hardball host, Chris Matthews. Margolick, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair as well as to the New York Times Book Review, had written a new book entitled Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. It’s the story of two women and a picture. And as soon as the picture appeared on the television screen, I instantly recognized it, and knew I had to read this book.
The two women referred to in the title are Elizabeth Eckford, who is African American and Hazel Massey, who is white. Their story begins when neither one was an adult woman, but rather two teens caught up in the ugly racial bigotry, fear and hate that school desegregation stirred up to the surface of the American South. The linkage between them was instantaneously forged by a photograph taken in September, 1957. In it, Elizabeth is seen walking stoically in sunglasses in front of Little Rock Central High School, while Hazel is seen standing directly behind her. Hazel’s face is contorted by hate as she yells racial epithets at Elizabeth. This famous image (actually there were more than one photo and more than one photographer) directly captured the true torment that school desegregation produced in Arkansas and throughout much of the South. It became an iconic record of the times of the civil rights movement, and the source of myriad articles, comments and other forms of discourse on race relations, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Margolick weaves together a complex chronicle explaining how the famous and haunting photo of the two young women came to be taken in the first place, its immediate and continued impacts, and why neither Elizabeth nor Hazel has ever managed to escape its powerful heritage. But as much as it is a story of race relations, it is also one of forgiveness in that it follows the often painful paths both women pursue to get on with life, and with each other as their relationship progresses from a simple, initial apology, to forgiveness, reconciliation, and even friendship. Although this last stage, the friendship, did not last, the common bond between them brought about by that fateful photo endures to this day.
A first class read both as a finely crafted history of one culminating event in the fight for school desegregation, as well as a study of the bad, the good and the roads of redemption that humans search for as they attempt to travel from the former to the latter.
Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock
Even though the December Holidays have been packed away, I discovered a beautiful gem that I want to share with readers.
Linda Sue Park, Newbery Award winning author of A Single Shard, has written a wonderful new picture book—The Third Gift. The book is beautifully illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.
The story begins with a young boy learning his Father’s craft—he collects tears. His Father’s craft is to recognize the trees that release valuable resin. Together they gather the round drops, pearls of sap that seep out of a tree when the bark is cut. Sometimes the boy and his Father have to walk a long way to find good trees but his Father is able to see “inside” each tree, some are good—some are not—if not good they have to continue on. Father knows exactly how to cut the tree. If Father has chosen well a tear will emerge and form a big tear. The outside of the tear will dry in the hot sun. These tears are large and contain a treasure of resin. The tears are then sold to the spice merchant in the marketplace. The tears are used for many things.
On this particular trip, one of the trees forms a tear the size of a hen’s egg. A few weeks later, father and son take their tears to the marketplace. The spice merchant has been waiting for them – the merchant has customers who want to buy a special gift. The boy’s tear is selected. The three men have a gift of gold, a gift of frankincense and now they will add a gift of myrrh. The boy wants to know who the gifts are for. One of the three merchants says the gifts are for a baby and the boy is proud that he harvested part of the gift. The three men mount their camels and ride into the desert while the boy wonders about the baby.
The last full page drawing shows the three merchants riding up to a small stable where the new born baby waits.
The story and paintings are absolutely beautiful. I have read this story several times and each reading merits studying the detailed artwork. What a gem—read this soon but also tuck it away for next December.
Also included are Bible references and historical information about the magi and myrrh.
The Third Gift
In her acceptance speech for the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, author Jesmyn Ward said “…I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the south so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs.” If this was the goal for her award-winning novel Salvage the Bones, I certainly believe she achieved it. Salvage the Bones, set in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, tells the story of the Batiste family struggling to survive daily life in the shadow of a hurricane. Esch, the narrator, is fifteen and pregnant, and alone in a household of men. Her father, an alcoholic since her mother passed away, can think only of protecting the family from the hurricane, while her brother Skeetah is obsessed with his prize fighting pit bull and her pups. Her brother Randall is focused on winning a scholarship to basketball camp, and her little brother Junior relies on Esch to act as mother. Their lives seem dangerously close to falling apart even without the assistance of one the worst hurricanes in American history, and the threat of impending doom creates an uneasy tension in the novel. Salvage the Bones is the story of human struggle, endurance, and love, and I don’t what could be more “fraught and lovely and important” than that.
Salvage the bones
“More, More, More,” Said the Baby: Three Love Stories is the story of Little Guy, Little Pumpkin, and Little Bird, three active babies whose caregivers affectionately “catch them up” to deliver kisses and nibble toes which, of course, the babies love. We've been enjoying this Caldecott Honor book along with our songs and rhymes at Baby Steps every Tuesday morning at 10:30 at the Central Library. While it's a great Valentine’s Day choice, More, More, More is nice any time of year and fun for older children and their caregivers, too. It's also available in a board book edition, perfect for sharing with the youngest readers-to-be.
"More, More, More," Said the Baby: Three Love Stories