Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris first came to my attention on a “Best Mystery” list. It is a mystery, and much more. Set in modern day Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Nayir al-Sharqi is asked by his friend Othman to go with him into the desert to try and discover the whereabouts of Othman’s sixteen year old fiancé, Nouf. The young woman has disappeared into the desert three days before their wedding, seemingly without a trace. Nayir tries to discover what has happened to Nouf, with the help of Katya, a young woman working in the state medical examiner’s office.
What I found particularly fascinating about this book was the glimpse into modern Saudi Arabian life. The author has lived in Saudi Arabia and so has a unique perspective and insight into the lives of both men and women living and working there. I recommended this book to a friend. Her book group chose it as their monthly read, and she said it resulted in a lively discussion.
If you’re looking for a mystery with a different slant, give this a try!
You Know When the Men are Gone, a collection of eight loosely connected stories, is centered on Fort Hood, Texas. The title of the first story and the collection refers to what is not heard through the thin walls of military housing: no boots stomping, no football games, no early morning doors slamming as they leave for drills. You know the men have deployed.
The women and the children wait, they cope in different ways. The men on deployment cope in their ways also; the homecoming can be bittersweet, challenging.
These are personal stories, not political. The tone is straightforward, the stories are compelling. They put a human face on the news stories.
You Know When the Men are Gone
During my youth I frequently went to Grand Rapids with my family so we could see my very fine uncle, aunt, and cousins. Since I have many happy memories of those visits, I was attracted to this book that includes approximately 50 two- and three-page stories about the city. Originally appearing in Grand Rapids Magazine, these are called in the subtitle 'pieces of Furniture City history.' One would expect to find some things about former President Gerald Ford and Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, and they are there, but there are also many accounts of business, recreation, transportation, and social life. I was pleased to see a reference to the now-defunct Kelvinator plant on Clyde Park Ave. because my eighth grade class from here in Kalamazoo went there on a field trip to see refrigerators being made. The many black-and-white photographs add to the appeal of this book.
Grand times in Grand Rapids : pieces of Furniture City history
It’s late February, that time of year when people from all over the US and the rest of the world are beginning to see some positive results from their New Year resolution dieting regimens. If only that were true! More likely is that they’ve become demoralized, disgusted and are ready to throw in the towel. They are abandoning the promise that they had made to themselves for a new start at improving their health and body profiles. For them, it’s turning out to be another winter of discontent, as weight once again begins its ceaseless ascent!
This year I too had made a similar resolution: To lose the ten or so pounds I had put on during the holidays. Ah yes, the holidays! A particularly perilous time for those of us for whom weight watching is a nasty, yet necessary, lifelong pursuit. Those cheery holidays, chock full of friendly parties and family get-togethers, each laden with high caloric temptations disguised in minute, innocuous forms such as pierogies (well, in my family anyways), snacks, cakes, cookies, toffees and cocktails among other so-called “goodies.”
But wait, there’s help on the horizon. Luckily, many new weight loss books have suddenly appeared like so many healthful sprouts in a pan found in one’s kitchen window winter garden. Two that have received an especially generous amount of exposure on the morning talk shows recently are, Shred: The Revolutionary Diet: 6 weeks, 4 inches, 2 sizes written by Ian K. Smith, and Al Roker’s Never Goin’ Back: Winning the Weight-Loss Battle For Good.
The Shred book claims to be an easy to follow, complete program for those who have reached a weight plateau in their dieting and now need something to overcome that hump. It’s a six week “jump-start” regimen, each week devoted to a different phase in the process.
Roker’s Never Goin’ Back book is part autobiography, part plan for reducing weight and keeping it off over the long term. It’s written in a casual, personal style that has become Al Roker’s on-air trademark over the years.
Of course, if these newly published works don’t strike your fancy, there are many, many more both current and from years gone by. KPL owns quite a few of them in its collection. Some are better than others, but if nothing else, they can all be counted on to effectively burn calories if bunched up in a bag or backpack and lugged about while doing one’s regular daily chores.
From personal experience, I know that what works for one person won’t necessarily for another. And fad diets are called just that for a reason; they impact popular culture in one great, but short lived, burst of attention and then fade quickly away, somewhat like a one-hit wonder, Hollywood celebrity. I tried a number of fad diets about ten years ago when I had a much more serious weight problem. I was becoming desperate and wanted to find an easy fix. In particular, I remember indulging in, (if you could call it that), the infamous Cabbage Soup Diet; the diet of choice for college students with limited means, and others, such as myself, who must have had cabbages for brains. At first, the diet seemed like it would do the trick. Starvation usually does. Unfortunately, it did much more than that, leaving people ill, constantly hungry, energy depleted and worse. Some ended up in the emergency room with gall stone attacks which apparently the acids in the cabbage seemed to aggravate in some people. I was luckier than that, but after emerging from the restroom for the fifth time in one day, I came to the realization that this road to salvation was not for me.
I then did the only sensible thing I could think of, and simultaneously joined Weight Watchers and a gym. I tried each alone before with little to show for it. But together, they clicked for me. The Weight Watchers points system proved to be easy to implement. And physical exercise was no problem at all because I am fortunate enough to be one of those nuts who loves to work-out, walk and swim. In the end, I lost a total of 77 pounds between the beginning of the year and July when I finally attained my goal weight.
The point of the matter is to never give up! In the beginning, my goal seemed lofty and unachievable. But as I started to see results, and with the support and encouragement of my family and friends, I began to feel more empowered over the task, and the goal appeared to be not that far away after all.
So, good luck to all you dieters out there. Persevere and remember that it’s all within your reach! You might just have to stretch a little more than you’re used to in order to get to the place you want to be.
Shred, the revolutionary diet : six weeks, four inches, two sizes
Like most identical twins, Christa and Cara Parravani shared a deep bond that went beyond being sisters or best friends…until Cara turned to drugs after a traumatic experience and died suddenly of an overdose at the age of 28. Her : a memoir describes Christa’s years of struggle after losing her beloved twin and while writing this memoir, which in parts was as if her sister was writing through her. Writing this memoir is what made her able to continue living.
KPL’s collection has many fascinating memoirs of twins. These include Divided minds, about twin schizophrenics, Identical strangers, about twins separated as infants and reunited as adults, and Twin : a memoir, about a twin sister who was separated from her brother and institutionalized at age 8 (and much later diagnosed with autism). To find other books on this topic, search the catalog under subject : Twins Biography.
There seems to be a real spike in the number of writers who are taking an interest in blending fiction with nonfiction, memoir and essay. The best of these are often clever and inventive hybrid texts that underscore the creative possibilities and evocative power of blending a traditional, linear narrative with a more fragmentary and poetic approach to language and style. Ali Smith’s new book Artful is simply an undefinable book that like the works of W.G. Sebald (The Rings of Saturn), J.M. Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello) and Geoff Dyer (Zona), strives to dismantle the narrow rules of what literature is and can be. The book is framed as a series of academic essays about art and literature channeled through a grieving narrator who is literally haunted by their dead lover, who we discover was the author of the papers (in reality, it was Smith herself who delivered these lectures). Smith’s project is to show us that fictional storytelling can be a vehicle for expressing fresh ideas about literature without that discourse being academically prose-less and obtuse, that it can explore the complex and beautiful marriage between art and life with originality.
George Saunders has hit the big time. His current collection of bizarrely funny and moving short stories, Tenth of December, is getting a lot of well-deserved publicity. Saunders is always playing his characters for laughs, but never deserts them, leaving them unsympathetic. He teases out their inner dialogues until we recognize ourselves in them, and as we laugh, we know we are guilty too. I have found reading his stories a singular pleasure ever since his debut collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There is no one else like him.
Tenth of December
Teaming with potential for medical breakthrough, Beyond Boundaries by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis discusses research in neurophysiology and "brain-machine interfaces" (BMIs). The book starts out by explaining how single neurons do not intrinsically process brain activity such as a thought or action, but how brain processes consist of many neurons working as a functional unit. For example, there is no single neuron contains the memory of a Grandmother’s face; one's memories emerge from fields of neurons firing in unified patterns. In addition, the author explains how most brain functions (like memory) are not located in specific anatomical regions, but rather in dynamic patterns of functional activity spread across various regions the brain.
By developing methods for recording and computing detailed patterns of large scale neuronal activity, Nicolelis and other researchers have trained animals to articulately control machine limbs through brain activity alone, i.e. without moving their physical bodies. This BMI research has exciting implications, for example in cases where individuals have lost the function of their legs due to spinal cord damage. Soon they may be equipped with wearable, exoskeleton suits that drive their legs in locomotion by directly reading their brain's neuronal firings. Ideally, such an interface would not require brain implants to record the high-resolution neural activity necessary for tasks like balancing and walking. The author concludes with fascinating speculations on where brain interface technology may lead us and how it might transform our society in centuries to come.
I found Beyond Boundaries to be comprehensive and engaging, but I occasionally had to push myself through the many research details until I approached the more exciting results and conclusions. While reading, I conjured ideas about how such advances might be used in conjunction with virtual worlds and virtual instruments. I imagined people training themselves to control many-limbed digital avatars, or playing virtual instruments with new and unimagined levels of control and articulation. In truth, some of the ideas illustrated in this book are so immense that I have yet to finish digesting them, and I might have to re-read a few chapters to gain a complete picture. But the book is fairly accessible to the general reader, and I would recommend it anyone interested in neuroscience, engineering, or future interfaces.
Beyond boundaries : the new neuroscience of connecting brains with machines--and how it will change our lives
In 2011, Zach Wahls’ speech to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee was posted online and went viral, where it gleaned over 17 million hits on YouTube. For those who’d like to hear more from this promising young activist, you can read his book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family.
Wahls, an Eagle Scout, was raised -- in a home steeped in family values, discussing morals at the dinner table—by two moms. In his book, Wahls breaks down the Boy Scout motto, law, oath and slogan, giving concrete examples of how his family exemplified values in each of those codes and what he learned from the Boy Scouts about living out those values. He also gives a moving account of his mother, Terry’s, struggle with MS, and how her illness and triumphs over her condition impacted the whole family. In general, we see a family sharing love and struggles, as all families do. This family’s parents ultimately earned the legal right to marry in their home state, partly due to Zach Wahls’ inspiring speech on the Iowa legislative floor.
The library has other materials by, and/or for, children of gay or lesbian parents, and their parents. If you don’t find what you are looking for, please ask!
My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family
Several months ago my book club decided to branch out and read a classic. We picked My Antonia, by Willa Cather, published in 1918. It’s a story of a woman’s simple and often time’s very hard existence living in the harsh Nebraska prairie lands where growing things are a challenge and enduring the winters are a true testament to one’s character. Antonia was the daughter of Bohemian immigrants who not only faced being an outsider, but difficulties with her own old world family. You will grown to love Antonia’s perseverance as she grows to be a strong woman and admire her can-do attitude during an age when many, even men, could not tackle this barren way of life. She is a true example of how happiness can be found in very trying times and as a reader you are drawn to see her grow and take joy in simple things.
Will Cather was born in 1873 in Virginia, but her family moved to Nebraska when she was nine to farm the land. A couple years later she got a job delivering mail on horseback to the rural settlers in her area. Doing this she become acquainted with many immigrants who also came to farm. She acquired a firsthand knowledge of the rough way of life as she viewed her neighbors, but also her own family who gave up on farming after a short try and moved into the nearest town. She eventually moved to New York City to continue with her writing. My Antonia is probably her best known work, but another Great Plains story is O, Pioneers written in 1913. Although not as well known, One of Ours, written in 1922 won the Pulitzer Prize. I plan to read more of her works. Give classics a try and you might be pleasantly surprised.