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Staff Picks: Books

Federal Budget Blueprint

Each year the oval office releases a proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The full budget will be released later this spring.

Meanwhile, America First: a Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again gives us a preview of President Trump’s budget. The book spells out his priorities right on the first page of the document. Page 5 lists the agencies for which he recommends eliminating funding. The next several pages give details about his approach to management and regulations. The rest of the book highlights the Executive office’s proposals for several major agencies. 

If you want to know how the current administration proposes to spend your federal tax dollars, but you don’t have time or energy to sort through a whole lot of information, look at this book. You can read it online right now or stop by the Central branch to read our print copy.


Big Cat, Little Cat

 Elisha Cooper’s books are always a joy.  His use of line is simple and elegant; here, a white cat welcomes a small black cat to the home and teaches it “when to eat, when to drink, where to go, how to be.”  They live together, play together, and the black cat becomes older and larger as the white cat then begins to age.  Then one day the white cat went away.  “And that was hard.  For everyone.”  Big Cat, Little Cat is a lovely book for young pet lovers. 

 

 


Racism in a Chicago Court

This book is horrifying.

For anyone concerned about racism in the criminal justice system, this is a must read and a truly original contribution to the conversation. Drawing on thousands of hours of actual observations in the Cook County criminal court system (Chicago), Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve exposes the various forms of racism that exist within the culture. The scene is set by a sad and shocking context: a huge courthouse, built next to a huge jail, built in a poor area where mostly people of color live. The people getting charged and the families of defendants are overwhelming people of color, mostly from that area. Next, you have an almost all white cast of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and defense attorneys—all commuting to work from a different area. Even the professionals find this very peculiar and odd, although they become desensitized to it eventually.

Cook County is a highly efficient cattle call of defendants taking a “plea” (pleading guilty for a reduced sentence) and going to jail. After finishing the book, the words “due process” and “justice” and “adequate representation” are non-existent. Most shocking is the more overt, “old school” racism. For example, a prosecutor will openly mock a defendant by talking in Ebonics. Or the term “mope” is the official term for most defendants in the system: lazy, criminal, undeserving defendants that suck up taxpayers money, a term which closely resembles another racially charged word that we don’t say anymore. Or the way people of color are segregated from the court proceedings, kept in a bullet proof room in the back of the court. These are defendants families, victims’ families, court watchers—again almost all Black or Brown. Frequently, they are dealt with in a rude, humiliating, or even aggressive way by judges or sheriffs.

Although the writing is a bit bad, repetitive, and academic (and I almost put the book down for that reason), I am enriched by the content and original research that went into it. The entire history of racism is brought to bare and applied in specific ways. The author has keen insight into the nuance of how racism becomes cultural and institutional—it’s not just a few “bad apples”. She goes out of her way to get the perspectives of prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys—all who do not, by the way, end of looking very good at the end. In fact, the defense attorneys end of looking surprisingly bad. You feel the sheer exhaustion, outrage, and guilt the author feels as she finishes the book. After all, in order to get the “inside” scoop, she essentially goes undercover as a clerk and takes part in the culture that she is writing against. And for what end? To expose the reality of day to day life in a real court system, something that can only be gleaned by observing it.

White Tears

Hari Kunzru brings his unique literary voice to a novel that explores race, privilege, authenticity, and the power of blues music. Drifting in and out of different time periods and settings, White Tears continues in the vein of Kunzru's last novel, Gods without Men, which used a similar  fluid timeline. Kunzru is a truly skilled writer and one of the rare popular novelists who gets favorable reviews from the literary intelligentsia, but remains very accessible and a fun storyteller at heart.


Ongoingness: the end of a diary

"She's a Proustian minimalist on the order of Lydia Davis, both in the way she distills complex thoughts on time and memory into pure essence and in how she examines writing as a means of control." –-Kirkus Review

So much more than a chronicling of her obsessive drive to record the totality of her life, Sarah Manguso’s bold memoir meditates on her relationship to her voluminous diary (over 800,00 words and 25 years in the making), its purpose and her decision to reduce its impact after becoming pregnant. In her spare yet precise prose, we discover Manguso’s documentarian ethic is more than simply an act of recounting the mundane gist of everyday life. It is an attempt to negotiate with the transience of things and moments, their meanings and the indifference of time’s inexorable erasure of memory. Ongoingness: the end of a diary, a slight text, holds the weight of bold, philosophical ideas about the relationship between writing and living.


Max

Incredibly researched and vividly written, Max by Sarah Cohen-Scali is not for the faint of heart. This historical fiction is based off of real events during WWII, beginning with our introduction to the titular character as he is preparing to be born, the first child of the Lebensborn Program. From his birth until the German surrender, we see the world through Max’s eyes and his heavily indoctrinated thoughts - sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic language included.
Getting through the first quarter of this book was a challenge for how descriptive the writing was in those regards. The second half of the book certainly rewards the reader for sticking it out, as Max subtly comes to understand the world around him, and how he deals with it. Max is a brutal story with an important message, well worth picking up.


You'll Have a Yabba Dabba Doo Time

I just read a graphic novel from Hoopla that contained some of the best social commentary in the past few years. Surprisingly it was from the recent DC Comics re-imagination of the cartoon classic, The Flintstones.

Mark Russell has crafted an irreverent story that not only updates the Hanna-Barbera cartoon (how do you update a story set in the past?), but also tackles some pretty serious social issues like war, politics, consumerism, the institute of marriage, and religion. Fred is less Ralph Kramden and more sensitive, modern Stone Age father. Wilma is trying to find her place in this newly formed civilization by painting Modern art. Pebbles is a moody, yet wise teenager fighting against the system. Barney, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm are still around helping the Flintstones navigate civilization and provide the loving friendship we remember from the TV show.

Steve Pugh’s art is an excellent hybrid of the cartoon style we are used to seeing and the 21st Century stylings in current comic books. You can spend hours trying to find all the hidden jokes in each panel. I was never a huge fan of The Flintstones, but I still very much enjoyed Russell and Pugh’s witty and intelligent take on everyone’s favorite prehistoric family unit.


Jake the Fake Keeps it Real

When Jake starts sixth grade at the middle school where big sister Lisa has always been a super star, Jake’s not sure what to expect. He got into the selective Music and Art Academy with his performance of “Song for My Father” on the piano. Now he’s not sure he can do what it takes to be successful there since he’s not really that interested in playing the piano. As Jake warms up to his new environment and makes new friends but keeps the old, hilarity ensues.
Writers Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach are responsible for some terribly funny books and movies, mostly for adults. I have been a fan of illustrator Keith Knight’s comic strips for a while and was excited to see this new work in the children’s chapter book domain. Jake the Fake Keeps it Real was a really funny read. The way the cartoon illustrations expand on the narrative make this a real pleasure to read. If you like Wimpy Kid, Big Nate, or Dork Diaries, I think you will really enjoy Jake the Fake.


The Red Parts

On the eve of publishing a book of poems about a murdered aunt, whose 1969 death was thought to have been part of a killing spree of a serial killer who targeted college age women near the Eastern Michigan and University of Michigan campuses, author Maggie Nelson unexpectedly received a phone call from a police detective in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who tells her that he believes he's cracked the case and is about to arrest a new suspect. This is where The Red Parts, Nelson's brilliant true crime memoir begins. 

Local readers may recall the case given the suspect was employed at Borgess Hospital and lived in nearby Gobles. More than simply a straightforward account of the criminal trial, Nelson critically probes her own complicated family history in addition to trying to make sense of our culture of violence and sexism. Available to stream using your Hoopla account and in book form, The Red Parts is a fascinating page turner from a writer with a fresh, bold voice.     


All Grown Up

All Grown Up is a contemporary novel that follows the life of a frustrated artist who ends up in an unsatisfying career in the city, rebelling against the social conventions of marriage and raising children in favor of remaining alone. In the process, she battles her own demons and explores, through her past and present relationships, how she came to be the person she is. It was a fast and satisfying read. 

I was interested to hear the author talk about the book as part of this New York Times Book Review podcast on The Definition of Adulthood.