Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

100 Years Later

On April 15, 1912, the date RMS Titanic sank, my grandparents were living and working on a farm in northeastern Iowa, the state in which they settled when they came to this country. Fifty years later, as a young boy, I was at their home, which by then was in Kalamazoo, and one of the Titanic movies appeared on their television. Now, 50 years after that, I can still remember what an impression that disaster had made on my grandmother and how she gave me her recollections of the event. The 100th anniversary of the sinking is this month. I'm glad KPL has my favorite book on the subject (pictured to the left), which was originally written in 1912 and reissued in 2012.


Wreck and sinking of the Titanic : the ocean's greatest disaster 
David D.

Mrs. Kennedy and Me

Jacqueline Kennedy was a woman who desperately wanted a private life. Clint Hill was the man who was charged with giving her as much of a private life as he was able.

 As one of two Secret Service agents on the First Lady’s protective detail, he tells their amazing story in Mrs. Kennedy and Me. Although the stories in this memoir are fascinating, what is most compelling is Mr. Hill’s fierce dedication and loyalty to Mrs. Kennedy as she lived a life that was so very public.


Mrs. Kennedy and Me

Queen of the Road

Author Rita Golden Gelman once lived what’s usually considered to be the privileged, good life, at least by most modern Western standards. Being materially well-off, she resided in a large house in the well-to-do suburbs of Los Angeles, had beautiful designer clothes, regularly dined on fabulous food, and attended more parties and other social events than she could remember. But when her husband asked for a separation and ultimately a divorce, she was thrown for a loop. She felt like her life was in a state of flux, yet stuck in some form of societal limbo. She began to feel out of sorts with some of her friends and acquaintances, and was uncomfortable with her old role in society in general.

She started to seriously question her then values. She had always preferred, “Goodwill to Neiman Marcus, Hondas instead of Mercedes,” but financial circumstances and community standing pushed her into choosing the latter rather than the former in most cases. She also came to the recognize that, “my house is too big, my garden too trim, and my friends too white and American.” Rita realized that she had become too complacent in her life’s cocoon, and that she had lost the spirit and zest for living, as well as the dreams of traveling the world that she had harbored in younger years.

Most other women of Rita’s age (48) and social background finding themselves in a similar predicament would have likely turned to the safe confines of some type of counseling, psychotherapy and/or course of anti-depressants in an attempt to preserve their past life sans hubby. However, Rita’s soul searching produced a completely different path: Chuck it all!

So after the divorce was finalized, she decided to seek exotic locales and to embark on the next phase of her life; a phase that neither her friends nor family could comprehend. In 1986, she sold almost all of her worldly possessions and with the little money left to her name, began a true nomadic existence, without any permanent address, bare minimum possessions and no real obligations to anyone.

This book records her world-wide adventures ensuing from this new found way of life. She lived in a small, remote village in Mexico, getting by with very elementary Spanish speaking skills. She slept with the sea lions on a beach in the Galapagos Islands. She observed orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo. She found her family and cultural roots in Israel. She spent years at a palace in Bali as a prince’s guest. She also extensively toured New Guinea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Thailand, Vancouver, Nicaragua, and New Zealand. But what really sets Rita apart from the ordinary traveler and/or nomad is her enviable way of connecting with people from different cultures, who come forward to help her along the way, and end up becoming her friends for life’s long haul.

Rita delved into this new life with a gusto and a true sense of spirit that few of us have ever experienced in our own lives. Reading this memoir, may arouse a similar wanderlust in you. The closest I ever came to this feeling was years ago when I had graduated from high school and was determined to join the Peace Corps. I was dissuaded from doing so by family and friends. What would have happened if I had followed that dream? No one knows. But it’s books such as these that make me wonder.


Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World

Mary Oliver

As others on the library blog have written, April is National Poetry Month. While I was in college, one of my dearest friends introduced me to Mary Oliver, who became one of my favorite poets. Maxine Kumin, another of America’s great poets, described Oliver as an “indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Oliver is known to acquire much of her inspiration from walks near her home in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and writes almost exclusively about nature. KPL has a nice collection of her work.

This video features Oliver reading a few of her poems, including one of my favorites, “Wild Geese”.

Other poets I recommend include Anna Akhmatova, Fleur Adcock, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Dorothy Parker.


Why I Wake Early

Eulinda, makes herself come true!

Eulinda’s story takes place during the civil war in 1864. Her father was the plantation owner and although he was kind to her, he was willing to do only so much. She had been acknowledged as his daughter, lived in the plantation home, and had received an education. She received castoff clothing from the master’s stepdaughter and was treated a little better than the rest of the slaves. That much of the story is fictional but most of Numbering All the Bones was built on facts taken from records on Andersonville Prison. The Andersonville prison was the most horrific prison in the American Civil War. Ann Rinaldi added real characters and real facts to her fictional story. William Griffin was a real ex-confederate officer, who came along and saw the 13,000 bodies and knew that the prison was something he had to set right. He tolled, first paying ex-slaves to work along side of him, out of his own money. They dug graves, painted headstones and planted flowers. It became Dorence Atwater ambition to dig up the Negro bodies to get the names off the toe tags on the bodies and reburied them with their names on the headstones. And then there was Clara Barton…but, I’ve already told too much.

Even though, this book was written for children it really captured me and I enjoyed reading how Eulinda made herself come true.


Numbering All the Bones


Lincoln would lean back on his chair to do his thinking. He would think about his speeches months in advance, writing and re-writing (yes it appears people wrote their own speeches back then). He would mumble the words out loud, get friends to read them aloud; and when it came time, he would read his speeches slowly (as I'm sure he did in Kalamazoo). What amazed me about this biography is that Lincoln's so called "eloquence" came with a lot of work. As a poor young man he would walk six miles to get a grammar book. Largely self-taught, he would devour books on grammar and speaking. Lincoln was very fond of the Psalms and used them for his speeches. For example, the main point of his Second Inaugural comes from Psalms 19:9: “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln really was a brave man. On his way to office he said: “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.” By "it" he meant the American promise "that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." Indeed he was.

Now his track record on slavery is, according to the many biographies and books, ambiguous. He was sort of a split personality. His personal attitude towards slavery seemed to stay the same throughout his political career; but his political attitudes changed.

First Inaugural address:

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so."

Later, after the war breaks out, Garrison and others are screaming for Lincoln to make a statement on slavery, to the make the war to be about slavery (as I said in my previous blog, people like Emerson wouldn't even let his son enlist for this reason). Lincoln replies immediately:

“if I could save the union and not save a single slave, I would do it. If I could save the union and save all the slaves, I would do it." Which this ends: "personally I wish all men were free." He also said “if slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.”

Eventually he does make slavery the cause of the war:

“Without slavery the rebelion could never have existed; without slavery it could not continue” (181).

He realized that “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free” (187), or as Martin Luther King would say, “Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” and “I must not ignore the wounded man on life's Jericho Road, because he is a part of me and I am a part of him. His agony diminishes me, and his salvation enlarges me."


the eloquent president

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson once dreamed that the world shrunk into an apple. An angel told him to eat it, and so he did. A fitting image of transcendentalist thought! The world is so small we can eat it; the mind prevails,"there was never any thing that did not proceed from a thought"; a single human being can do anything.

By most accounts Emerson was a great American, a great speaker, and a great man. He was a transcendentalist, a nature writer, a Unitarian minister, a teacher, a literary figure, a speaker (yes, that was his profession!), a poet. He was anti-slavery, anti-establishment, pro-women's rights (all when it was "unfashionable"); and, even through family deaths and sorrows, he was a champion of unbridled and unparalleled optimism. But what impresses me most is the degree to which he thought for himself, went his own way, and fearlessly lived.

At 24 Emerson visits the South. He's at a bible study. He can hear a slave auction outside. He and his wife, part of the Underground Railroad in Boston, would always be vocal against slavery. On the Emancipation Proclamation he said: “[Lincoln] has been permitted to do more for America than any other American man.” When the war was only about saving the Union, he wouldn't’t let his son enlist. He supported John Brown. In 1844 even the churches wouldn't open their doors for his speeches, which fueled his distrust of organized religion: “God builds his temple in the heart, on the ruins of churches and religions."

On the unity of all persons: “There is one mind common to all individual men” Like Thoreau's chant "Simplicity!" Emerson's chant was "Identity, identity! Friend and foe are one stuff, and the stuff is such and so much that the variations of surface are unimportant.” On us and Nature: “There is a relation between man and nature so that whatever is in matter is in mind.” On beauty: “all is in each” and “the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms—the totality of nature.” He was so convinced in the power of a single individual that he said "properly there is no history, only biography." In other words, if you want to learn history, read a bunch of biographies--history is nothing but a list of great and terrible people. But we are all potentially great people: “each fine genius that appears is already predicted in our constitution.” In a stoic and Christian way, he thought groups of people only make things worse. After witnessing the French Revolution, he says “It is always becoming evident that the permanent good is for the soul only and cannot be retained in any society or system...the world is always childish." On courage, peace, and nonviolence Emerson was like Martin Luther King Jr: "Courage is grounded always on a belief in the identity of the nature of my enemy with my own [nature], that he with whom you contend is no more than you."

Yes I recommend this biography, but it's a commitment (due to length).


Emerson: Mind on Fire

25 Years of Brilliant Essays and Reviews

There are several elements that I feel, that while not required, certainly make for better reading when it comes to essays, reviews and personal reflections. They are: 1.) an energetic prose that flows well and that doesn’t become bogged down in obtuse jargon and esoteric detail 2.) an economy and focus (most pieces should not exceed 7 pages in length) when summarizing a particular subject’s value or importance to either the audience or the writer 3.) a calm passion and genuine curiosity for the subject matter and lastly 4.) an engagement with complex ideas or cultural values by mixing together an element of wit with a fierce and independent intelligence.

Geoff Dyer’s nonfiction prose really hits the spot for me and for those who love writers willing to tackle a multitude of subjects with a fresh perspective, check out his Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. Fans of the late cultural critic John Leonard or those who enjoy the inventive observations of Greil Marcus may also enjoy Dyer’s work. Dyer tackles the books of writers like Richard Ford, Don Delillo, Lorrie Moore, and John Cheever along with personal takes on comic strips and life as an only child. He delves into the inner essence of works of art like J.M.W Turner’s painting Figures in a Building, linking its evocative power with that of Tarkovskii's masterpiece, Stalker. Along the way, you’ll learn about the impact of Richard Avedon’s mixing of high art with fashion photography and how Susan Sontag’s fiction pales in comparison to her contributions as a cultural critic. Dyer is never boring even when you may take issue with his opinions. You’ll never end up with just a straight, descriptive review with Dyer. He’s a deft craftsman with a talent for bringing out new readings on old subjects. Highly recommended.


Otherwise Known as the Human Condition

Def Jam Recordings

To recognize the first 25 years of the label, Def Jam Records has released this huge coffee table style book that celebrates the artists and personalities that helped take Def Jam from a scrappy young label that focused on getting the fresh new sound of hip hop on record to a bonafide pop culture icon. With photographs from across the labels first quarter century and essays from its founders, artists, and top executives, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label chronicles all that has made the label what it is today and walks those of us who grew into adulthood alongside Def Jam down a beautifully constructed rap music memory lane.


Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label

The Case of the Deadly Desperados

Since I’m a children’s librarian by training, I’m always interested in reading children’s books. A new book, The Case of the Deadly Desperados by Caroline Lawrence, got rave reviews and I can understand why.

In the Old West of 1882, 12 year old P.K. Pinkerton is on the run from Whittlin’ Walt and his gang of desperadoes. P.K. has a deed that his dying Ma gave him, that gives the bearer possession of land and a rich silver mine in the Nevada Mountains. P.K. has to use lots of ingenuity to stay one jump ahead of ruthless Whittlin” Walt, and also the schemes of gamblers, hurdy girls, and con men who populate the rough and tumble West of those times.

The story is action packed, funny, and poignant, and is aimed at 5th grade-and-up readers. This is the first in the projected “Western Mysteries” series by Caroline Lawrence; I’ll be looking forward to the next installment and P.K.’s further adventures.


The Case of the Deadly Desperados
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