Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
I saw A star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith on a recommended list, and I’m so glad that I did. Historical fact skillfully blends with fiction to make a story that’s hard to put down.
It’s the story of five very different women, brought together in 1930 by a single shared experience- each of them had a son who was killed in World War I. That heartbreaking fact made each of them each a “Gold Star Mother”, an actual United States government designation. Thousands of women all across the country were offered the chance to travel to Europe to visit the final resting place of their sons, with all expenses paid by the United States.
In Smith’s novel, the five “Gold Star” women who are the focus couldn’t be more different. Cora, the youngest, is a librarian from rural Maine. Then there is Minnie, wife of an immigrant Russian Jewish chicken farmer; Katie, an Irish maid from Massachusetts; Wilhemina, the emotionally fragile wife of a banker, and Bobbie, a rich socialite from Boston. Joining hundreds of other Gold Star women, they travel by ship to France, where unexpected experiences and chance meetings will change their lives forever.
I did a little research and discovered that in 1929, Congress passed legislation that allowed mothers and widows of sons who died in service between the years of 1917 and 1921 the right to make a “pilgramage” to Europe to visit the resting place of their son. By 1933, when the project ended, almost 6,700 women out of an eligible 17,389 had made the trip.
It’s a fascinating story, and well told. For a change of pace, also try author April Smith’s mystery series featuring FBI agent Ana Gray. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed in those, either.
A star for Mrs. Blake
About twenty years ago, I stumbled on a documentary called Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It told the story of the investigation into the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent conviction of three teenagers, casting doubt on whether the teenagers were guilty of murder or just guilty of wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, and enjoying horror films.
Over the years, the documentary filmmakers who made the original Paradise Lost have produced two other films: Paradise Lost: Revelations and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. These documentaries and other information about the case convinced some high profile people like: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to lobby for the release of these teenagers.
After a bizarre plea deal, they were released on August 19, 2011 after serving over eighteen years for crimes they possibly didn’t commit.
Now, Damien Echols, who was on death row for those eighteen years, tells his story in Life After Death. Watch the documentaries and read his book and decide who you believe.
Life After Death
In the 1950s and 1960s it was not unusual to see lots of Volkswagen Beetles around the Kalamazoo area. One that I remember with fondness was owned by two of my esteemed colleagues, FDC and GO, long past the time that the car was in its heyday. I always enjoyed seeing that car go by. Today there is the New Beetle in colors that vary quite a bit from the original Type 1. About six months ago KPL acquired a well-documented history of the VW Beetle. I particularly liked looking at the ads that are interspersed throughout the text. Anyone interested in automotive history or advertising practices of the mid- to late 20th century would appreciate this fine effort.
The People's Car : a global history of the Volkswagen Beetle
Isa Chandra Moskowitz is a familiar name to many vegans; she’s written a number of vegan cookbooks, including the classic Veganomican, an essential recipe collection and culinary guide for those who avoid cooking with animal products, and she has a popular website focusing on vegan baking and cooking, Post Punk Kitchen. Her latest cookbook endeavor is Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy, Wildy Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week, and let’s just say I’m in love. Isa Does It is chock full of over 200 delicious and easy-to-make recipes, highlighted by beautiful photos and charming illustrations. As with all her recipes that I’ve made, I’ve found them to be fairly quick (between a half-an-hour to an hour to make) and layered with complex flavors. This is a great cookbook for people who aren’t vegan, too; as a vegetarian, I find I’m occasionally disappointed by vegan cookbooks because they use a lot of uncommon ingredients or dairy replacements that I wouldn’t want to buy. Isa Does It relies on fairly common ingredients, making it a great choice for not only vegans, but also for vegetarians and for omnivores looking for ideas for “Meatless Mondays.”
Isa Does It
I was browsing the first floor rotunda at the Central Library and discovered a cool display of science themed books. The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans caught my eye. Extinct humans? I'd never really thought about it that way, but later species of hominids we know about from fossil records were other branches on the tree of human evolution. From the earliest hominids to Homo sapiens, each of the chapters in this large format illustrated book profiles one human species. I enjoyed the vignettes at the beginning of each chapter that take the reader into the world of these species finding food, making art, finding food, making stuff, finding food, and so on. It's fascinating to consider how some of these species coexisted in time until one, the last human, outcompeted them all.
This fascinating book is based on an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. If this topic interests you, you might also enjoy the Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins site.
The Last Human
Recently, I’ve come across some fascinating non-fiction books for kids. I’ve just finished Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers by Tanya Lee Stone.
Full of wonderful photos, this book tells the story of the men who served in the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion out of Fort Benning, Georgia. These soldiers became America’s first black paratroopers and author Tanya Lee Stone uses their story to explore the role of African Americans in the military. This is a great addition to the literature of World War II.
Tanya Lee Stone also wrote Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream, another book that sheds light on a little-known aspect of American history.
Courage Has No Color
Isn't that a great title? The Impossible Knife of Memoryis Laurie Halse Anderson's latest teen novel and it is incredible as usual! I think this statement about Anderson from a New York Times review by Jo Knowles says it better than I ever could:
“Beginning with the publication of her award-winning young adult novel Speak in 1999, Laurie Halse Anderson has written with honesty and grit, bravely shedding light on such once-taboo topics as rape, eating disorders, suicide and addiction. In doing so, she has helped build the current landscape of contemporary young adult literature. Anderson writes the hard truth, stirring debate and discussion among both fans and objectors, and ultimately creating long overdue conversations about the real issues teenagers face every day.”
Kids and teens need to see themselves and their stories reflected in literature, even the hard stories. And they need to see the stories they may never personally experience portrayed in literature as well. In The Impossible Knife of Memory, Anderson writes with depth and authenticity about the sometimes devastating effects of war and PTSD and about the raw, reality of loving a parent who struggles with addiction. This book will change lives in that wonderful way that literature can. I am honored to have read it and I don't regret for a moment sobbing my way through it.
The Impossible Knife of Memory
I’m not a typical reader of memoirs but something about the description of Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding drew me in. The first thing readers will notice is Lynn Darling’s wonderful voice and the tone of the prose— frank, witty and poetically profound. Next, you’ll find out that the book is about the second act of a woman’s adult life, both the joys and obstacles to finding pleasure and wisdom in her pre-Golden Years. With her college age daughter having flown the coop and her husband having died a decade earlier, 50-something Darling decides to take flight from familiar comforts in an attempt to locate her “essential self” by living off the grid in rural Vermont. Favorably compared to other books with similar themes of personal exploration (Eat, Pray, Love, Wild and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to name but a few), Darling plummets deep into both the real and the metaphoric woods of her being, seeking out answers to life’s household, ontological questions.
Out of the woods: a memoir of wayfinding
Vermont based, veteran children’s book author/illustrator and artist Lizi Boyd’s latest literary effort is a wordless picture book that is deceptively simple. Inside Outside incorporates cool, slightly hidden, die-cut page openings through which readers can catch glimpses of what’s transpired and what is yet to come. This device is used to slyly, yet gently tie in the future and the past to the present, underscoring the continuity of the passage of time.
By means of bright, sharply colored drawings set in a predominantly muted, light brown background, Boyd tells the story of a seemingly self-sufficient young boy doing inside and outside activities over the course of one calendar year. Inside overlaps outside, and outside overlaps inside with each turn of the page, until we come full circle to the initial season once more.
With a collection of animal friends lending a helping wing, paw or claw, the young boy proves that there is no room for boredom no matter what time of year it is. Together they read, make crafts, fly a kite, plant a garden and engage in more activities than I could list here.
This book is great for a “one-on-one” reading session. That way both child and caregiver can pour over the intricate illustrations that show plenty of action both obvious and hidden, and share in the mutual delight brought about by their discovery.
Lizi’s dogs both agree.