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Staff Picks: Books

The Phenomenon

Last Sunday, I was in my car and I happened to turned on Fresh Air on NPR to the sound of Terry Gross introducing Rick Ankiel as this week’s guest. The name was vaguely familiar to me as a moderately enthusiastic baseball fan, and as the story unfolded on the radio, I recalled the events of game one of the 2000 National League Division Series played by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. A game where a guy they were calling “the next Sandy Koufax”, a 21 year old who had secured a slot in the St. Louis Cardinals system at the age of 18 with a signing bonus of $2.5M, managed five wild pitches in a single inning. He chalked it up to the yips.

To athletes and fans, that is likely a term with which they are at least passingly familiar. The yips refers to the acute psychological and physiological occurrence in which a motion or action, previously reproduced thousands of times, suddenly becomes impossible or unreliable at best. It’s a disconnect between the body and mind of the athlete that can strike suddenly and spiral completely out of control as anxiety from each successive mistake steadily mounts.

In The Phenomenon, Ankiel and co-author Tim Brown describe the events that day at Busch Stadium and its aftermath. The Cardinals would go on to win that game and the NLDS, but for Ankiel, the damage was done. He would spend the next several years playing minor league ball at lower and lower levels while he battled alcoholism, injury, and the yips in an effort to pitch his way back to the majors - which he did, only to reinvent himself as a power-hitting center fielder.

This is not just a book for baseball fans or sports enthusiasts in general. It’s an eerily relatable biography with a focus on family, mentorship, and personal struggle both superficial and unseen. More than a story of one of the most bizarre and unlikely baseball careers in recent memory, The Phenomenon is a case-study in the concept of mind over matter, both for better and worse.


Call Me Tree - Llámame Árbol

Written and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez, Call Me Tree is a beautiful journey that imagines life as a tree, from a seed in the ground to an árbol standing tall. Written in both English and Spanish, the sparse, lyrical wordings perfectly complement the rich and expressive imagery exploring nature, connectedness, and individuality.


Love & Gelato

I read almost every book set in Italy I can find. So of course I would pick this one up. Love & Gelato tells the story of Lina, who is moving to Italy to live with a father she's never met after her artist mother has died. When she arrives, Lina is given her mother's old journal, full of sketches and writings, detailing her own college years in Florence. Though she grieves for her mother and her life in the States, Lina takes every opportunity to learn who her mother and father are this summer in Italy. In the process, she unearths a major secret, makes friends, and meets a love interest. I loved this YA novel. It's the perfect summer read for fans of realistic fiction, with light romance and travel.


A Really Good Day

Having been misdiagnosed with Bipolar II, and later with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Waldman begins her book at a point where all her remedies for depression and mood swing have essentially failed her. She has stumbled across the book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys by James Fadiman. Waldman, a previous federal public defender and law professor who taught “The Legal and Social Implications of the War on Drugs” at UC Berkeley, is also the mother of four. Disturbed by the impact of her emotional instability on her family, she begins taking microdoses of LSD following Fadiman’s protocol. Having no interest in an LSD prompted spiritual enlightenment or hallucinatory experience; she is motivated instead to join Fadiman’s experiment by the outcomes described by others who have participated: namely more positive mood and increased ability to focus. 

A Really Good Day, is written as an amusing daily journal of her experience “microdosing” which she intersperses with the compelling story of LSD as a pharmaceutical and then social drug. She is forthright in her concerns regarding the use of LSD as an illegal substance and hiding this use from her children, and her internal conflict with taking what is perceived to be a “recreational” drug. Waldman explores the effects of microdosing on depression and anxiety through her witty and deeply personal disclosure, which she balances with a rich and informative history of LSD. Her skepticism, overcome by self-described “desperation” for “A Really Good Day” is met with outcomes that are surprising and provocative.


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.