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Staff Picks: Books

Little Black Lies

I admit to not knowing much about the Falkland Islands, the setting for the novel Little Black Lies. But the Falklands are a strong presence in this suspenseful story by S.J. Bolton, and I certainly feel as though I have a stronger sense now of the islands.

In the story, three children have gone missing in this wild and beautiful place, over a period of several years. Most of the islanders feel that accidents claimed the children- perhaps a fall, or swept away by a strong tide. As events unfold and the main characters and motives are revealed, it becomes apparent that certainly not all of the disappearances can be explained away by accidents.

Strong characters, a fast paced story, and a fascinating setting make Little Black Lies a winner. It was recommended to me by a co-worker, who said he feels it’s one of the best books he’s read all year, and I agree.

The Fire Next Time

I recently read The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates in preparation for his visit to Kalamazoo in November. Coates has garnered much praise for his latest book, Between the World and Me, a book written as a letter to his son that explores the racial history of the U.S. and its impact on black lives today. Coates’ work has me reminiscing about one of my favorite books, another book about being black in America: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

The Fire Next Time is a letter written to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the book, Baldwin discusses growing up in Harlem and his experiences with racial injustice. I read the book when I was about twenty years old, and it moved me in a way I can’t describe; it was a matter of reading the right book at the right time—my ears and heart were open to really listening to what Baldwin had to say. It was one of my first realizations as a white person that my experience of life in the U.S. was vastly different from black Americans. It pains me to think that this book is as pertinent as ever, and that racial injustice is legacy we Americans are left to handle. The Fire Next Time galvanized my deep respect for Baldwin and his writing and made him a forever favorite of mine.

Daughters of the dragon : a comfort woman's story

If you liked The kite runner and Memoirs of a geisha, you may be interested in Daughters of the dragon by William Andrews. This historical fiction book set in 20th century Korea follows the life of a fictional Korean "comfort woman," Jae-hee. During World War II, thousands of young women in occupied territories were forced to be comfort women (sex slaves) for the Imperial Japanese Army. Jae-hee and her sister were two of them, ripped from their happy family farm in 1943. The book details Jae-hee's escape and attempt to return to a normal life while keeping her secret.

This book unveils a dark side of history that is not well-known, but deserves to be told.


The Light of the World

 Elizabeth Alexander has written a powerful memoir of her life with, and then without, her beloved husband Ficre.  Through telling her own story in The Light of the World, Alexander gives the rest of us something to consider about the relationships we have with those who are dearest to us.  Read this to be reminded of the power of love.

The One, the Only - Ivan

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla is a picture book account of the life of a wild animal who was born in a tropical forest in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He lived with a large family of Western lowland gorillas. He enjoyed this time in his young life until one day poachers came and captured both him and another baby gorilla.

He and the other little one, named Burma, were sold to a man who owned a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. Burma died shortly after being delivered to her new surroundings, but Ivan lived in a home and was treated much like a human child. At age five however, he became too big and strong for his human domestic setting, and had to be moved to a concrete and glass cage at his owner’s mall. In this confining, barren environment, he amused himself by watching television, finger painting and engaging in his favorite activity of all - watching humans watch him.

After spending 27 years in this unfit, deficient situation, there was an outcry in the Tacoma community (as well as around the world), about Ivan’s plight. Letters were written, petitions signed and protests held to release Ivan from the confines of his small cage in the shopping mall.

Finally, Ivan’s owners gave in, and shortly thereafter he was sent to Zoo Atlanta where he was gently adjusted to a new life in a large enclosure populated by other gorillas, green grass and large trees.

In 2012, Ivan died at the age of 50. A memorial service was held in his honor at the Zoo, remembering Ivan’s unique role in representing the need that all animals have to be treated with dignity and kindness.

This is a wonderful book for preschoolers or early elementary kids by Newbery medalist Katherine Applegate who had previously published a novel which was also inspired by these same events. She will be conducting an Author’s Visit at the Kalamazoo Public Library’s Central location on September 22nd, 2015.

The child appealing illustrations in this volume are by G. Brian Karas who spent many hours researching gorillas by watching them at the Bronx Zoo.


Jean-Michel Basquiat: now's the time

The american painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the tragically young age of 27, has now been dead as long as he was alive. That fact was shocking to me, as I remember the first time I heard about Basquiat, and saw his incredibly expressive neo-folk, graffiti inspired work in a magazine at the Wax Trax! record store in Chicago during the early 1980's, like it was yesterday (well, make that last week or so). The power in those paintings was somehow apparent to my neophyte's understanding of art at the time. And later, as Basquiat became synonymous with the excessive 80's New York art scene and I saw pictures of the artist - looking impossibly cool with dreadlocks and sunglasses, barefoot but wearing an Armani suit - I knew that he was on a trajectory to fame or infamy that very few either sustain or survive. Looking through Jean-Michel Basquiat: now's the time, a new high-quality presentation of his short, yet prolific career with over 150 color illustrations of his work, many of which I had never seen before, I'm pleased to see that others saw the same power in his paintings that I saw as a teenager and that his influence and importance as an artist have only grown in the decades since his meteoric rise to fame and tragic death.

Mothman's Curse

I confess that I had never actually heard of the Mothman until last year when a patron asked me for books about the cryptid. Originating in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, in the mid-1960s, the legend of the Mothman apparently began when four teenagers reported being chased by a large moth-like figure in the sky. A few years later, the Mothman was blamed, among other theories, for the tragic and seemingly freak collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River at Point Pleasant. While perhaps not as well-known as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, how could such an American original have escaped my knowing? Mothman’s Curse is a new chapter book that is not-too-scary, depending on your taste, of course. It is, as one review says, a good next step up from R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. Josie and her friends live in Athens, Ohio, where they discover a Polaroid camera that prints pictures of a particular ghost in Athens, "the most haunted town in America". From there, the kids start to unravel the curse of the Mothman. The Mothman’s Curse is a not-too-terrifying read that delves into the fascinating American folklore surrounding this lesser known, at least to me, cryptid.

The Nightingale

The World War II time period with a European setting is a particularly popular fiction genre within the past two to three years. I have read many of them, but my favorite to date is Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

The story focuses on two sisters set in a French village beginning in 1939. Both are overcome by the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. One remains in the village which is ultimately taken over by the Germans, the other joins the French underground.

One of the sisters narrates the story from the present, but the reader doesn’t know until the end which sister is telling their shared story.

As expected from a novel of this time and setting, Hannah examines life, love, the ravages of war, and the different ways people react to unthinkable situations. It is well-written and a good read.

Sing No Evil

Finally, the Finnish urban fantasy heavy metal graphic novel you've been waiting for! Set in the Finnish city of Tampere, Sing No Evil tells the story of the struggling heavy metal band Perkeros whose members include long-suffering, dyslexic, stuttering lead guitarist Aksel (whose vocals are compared to a "crow with pharyngeal plague"); Lily, the art-school student keyboard player; the ancient, yoga-practicing bassist Kervinen (a crusty freak who's played with everyone from The Doors and Jimi Hendrix to Uriah Heep and Simon & Garfunkel); and, well, Bear, the drummer who's literally a bear. Perkeros (whose name was supposed to be "Kerberos" but was misspelled by Aksel) can't seem to catch a break, and stumble through a Spın̈al Tap-esque series of misfortunes before recruiting Turkish pizza chef Aydin as their vocalist right before their big break at the annual Rocktoberfest concert. But all of that might be for nothing as supernatural forces of ancient evil begin to infiltrate the city. Lushly illustrated (the concert sequences are particularly beautiful, with full-page spreads of green, orange, and yellow swirling around the bands), and written with an eye for wonderful character development, Sing No Evil is a kinetic and vibrant ride through the Finnish metal underground. Can Perkeros save the city from the forces of darkness? Will they finally get a chance at a good gig? Will anyone buy their records, and will they finally get a decent review? Probably. With a focus on theatrical, Finnish heavy metal, there's naturally some coarse language, a bit of drinking, and some violence, so this may not be everyone's cup of tea. But if you're into metal and beautiful illustrations, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

The American Plate

Here I am again, the library's non-cook, writing about a cookbook. But, this one is so much more than a book of recipes. As the subtitle indicates, it's 'a culinary history in 100 bites.' Not only are recipes included, but also background information on the ingredients and on the way the people who prepared and ate these foods lived. Bite 59 is celery, and Kalamazoo is mentioned for its role in the early production of that commodity. Bite 41 is entitled 'Lincoln's Favorite Cake' and has the recipe for 'Mary Todd Lincoln's White Almond Cake,' which is to be served with cherry ice cream. Now doesn't that sound tasty for a warm August day? Not only does this 2014 book cover historic foods that I wouldn't even consider eating, like eel (even though my ancestors did eat it), but more recent developments such as TV dinners and microwave popcorn. It's obvious that an incredible amount of research went into this book, and it's good for reading straight through or casual browsing.