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Staff Picks: Books

Halloween Reads

I was obsessed with ghost stories when I was a kid, particularly Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark written Alvin Schwartz and ghoulishly illustrated by Stephen Gammell. My love of ghost stories turned into a love of horror movies as I grew up (The Babadook and It Follows being recent favorites of mine), but there a still a few ghost stories that have kept my interest as an adult:

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

All of these books are perfect for fall reading and curling up with a blanket (and at my house, a dog or three) when it gets dark. But don’t blame me if you if they keep you awake at night!


Nat Turner and Slave Resistance

Filmmaker Nate Parker made history at this year's Sundance Film Festival when he sold his film, The Birth of a Nation, to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid at the festival. The film went on to win the festival's U.S. Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. The film follows the life of Nat Turner, and the slave revolt he led in Virginia in 1831. When asked in an interview why he chose to use the same title for his film as the 1915 silent film often credited as a catalyst for the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Parker responded, "I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."

When news of this film at Sundance first emerged many months ago, some friends and I were discussing our eager anticipation of the film, which opens in theaters today. Those conversations led me to think more about slave revolts and how these episodes in American history are often minimized, or completely ignored. In fact, well into the mid-20th century some white scholars of American history still claimed that Africans passively accepted enslavement. We know this isn't the case, but it's not a topic covered very thoroughly by most history courses before university-level. Wanting to learn more, I began reading more works on slave resistance.

The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
Historian Gerald Horne argues the Revolutionary War was a tactic used by the founding fathers to prevent the abolition of slavery in the colonies, challenging the traditional narrative of our country's founding. Highly recommended.

American Uprising: the Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt by Daniel Rasmussen
This book details the 1811 revolt in what is present-day Louisiana. Hundreds of slaves from several different sugar cane plantations marched together in an attempt to overtake New Orleans. It is thought the Haitian Revolution, ending in 1804, partly inspired this uprising, which was ultimately unsuccessful and led to the execution of 95 slaves.

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
This award-winning graphic novel details Turner's life, beginning with his mother's enslavement and ending with his execution for his role in the revolt.

Ardency: a Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels by Kevin Young
This is a poetic retelling of the Amistad revolt by poet and scholar Kevin Young, who was long-listed for this year's National Book Award for poetry and was named director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture this past August.


Say Goodbye to Dietland

Plum Kettle is fat, and she doesn’t want to be. She spends her days in solitude, dreaming of the day she’ll be thin after her scheduled bariatric surgery and buying clothes for her future thin self—that’s when she’ll be happy and finally start living the life she wants. But there would be no story here if that’s what happened to Plum; instead, an encounter with a mysterious woman leads Plum to discovering an underground faction of fierce feminists who challenge how Plum sees herself and the whole wide world. The book jacket describes Dietland as “part coming-of-age story, part revenge fantasy,” is which absolutely a great description of this darkly funny, feminist novel.


The Excellent Lombards

This coming-of-age novel by Jane Hamilton centers on Mary Frances “Frankie” Lombard and her family’s sprawling apple orchard. Her idyllic life on the farm begins to fray in the complexities of family dynamics, love, and loss as the future of the farm becomes increasingly unclear.

Hamilton writes almost a love letter to a threatened way of life. One reviewer says it “takes us back to being a child and believing in one thing wholeheartedly.”

There is much to discuss and appreciate in this novel. It would be a good book group choice.


Mess!

After hearing Barry Yourgrau interviewed on NPR Weekend Edition, I was drawn to read Mess: One Man's Struggle to clean up his House and his Act. 

Yourgrau’s girlfriend delivered an ultimatum. Basically it was: clean this place (and your life) up, or we are over! Yourgrau loves his girlfriend, and he wanted the relationship, so he had to figure out how to clean up his mess. He began to research, interviewing many people and reading quite a lot, seeking to understand why people clutter and hoard and how they overcome that issue, if/when they do.

I found most of the book fascinating, though I bristled with discomfort reading the author’s description of a Clutterers Anonymous meeting (p. 43.) It seemed he attended as a voyeur, an ‘objective’ researcher, instead of honestly owning his own issues. I found it unethical that he shared the details of that meeting in his book. Many anonymous 12-Step groups say: “What you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.” Yourgrau didn’t give real names to any of the speakers, but he shared enough details that if one of those people should read his book, I’d think they would recognize themselves. Not cool, when you’re attending an anonymous meeting! His writing displayed a condescending attitude toward the other people at the meeting. I sensed he was hiding from his feelings about himself and his own clutter by judging the other people around the table.

That said, that experience appears fairly early in the book. Yourgrau’s attitude toward other clutterers seemed to soften as his book progressed, as he learned more about why people clutter and hoard, and as he understood and accepted more about his own issues with said behavior. Ultimately, it was very interesting how the author shared of his personal story/experience, wove it into what he learned about cluttering and hoarding, then would weave what he learned back into his own understanding of himself. All told, I liked the book and I liked Yourgrau.

It’s a shame he didn’t include a bibliography, because the book is packed with references.


A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

For the last six years or so, it has been more or less impossible to avoid hearing discussions concerning the HBO series Game of Thrones, and most have probably heard enough to determine for themselves whether or not it’s their cup of tea.

In the case of those who have become captivated by (read: obsessed with) the show and left wanting during the between-season stretch from July to April each year, the obvious solution has been to turn their attention to George R.R. Martin’s gritty and compelling magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire, currently consisting of five novels off which the show is based. Many will be delighted to discover that these works tend to weigh in around 700+ pages each, meaning all that much more time to spend enthralled in the exploits of their favorite characters as conflicts rage across Westeros and Essos.

For those who balk at that task, which is no small feat, yet still want to experience the canonical story elements sidelined, re-imagined, or omitted entirely by the show, I cannot recommend the audiobook versions of these books enough. This was my chosen method for getting myself up to speed so I could safely engage with online resources free of the dread feeling that I was about to stumble upon some devastating spoiler.

Since publishing the fifth entry in the seven book series in 2011 (which was only a year after the show began its run) Martin has been working on the sixth installment entitled The Winds of Winter. He had initially expressed his wishes via blog post to hand the book to his publisher by Halloween of 2015. That date was later revised to the end of the calendar year. Then it was to be finished by the premiere of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. In January of this year, he revised his stance again saying, “It will be done when it’s done.”

Fans are understandably anxious for the next book. The internet is full of angst over the idea that Martin may pass away before he’s able to finish the next two books- never mind that this is a human being we’re talking about- the books! YouTube videos have been made pleading for more news and sample chapters. Songs have been written. Guitars have been smashed.

For better or worse, Martin is not a single-minded automaton. He’s been busy attending conventions, working on the HBO show, living his life, and even working on other books. He recently published a three-part prequel novella collection entitled A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which takes place approximately one hundred years prior to the events in the other books in the series, and chronicles the exploits of the young hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall, or Dunk, and his precocious squire, Egg.

The general tone tends to be bit more light-hearted than that of previous books in the series which many may find refreshing. A further departure from those works can be seen in the static point of view, told entirely from Dunk’s perspective as opposed to a rotating cast of characters. In both of these ways, it’s a bit like the Hobbit when compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Martin’s fans will find plenty to enjoy in the era of relative peace that preceded Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings, and it’s a perfect distraction for those who are anxiously biding their time and waiting for the next bit of news concerning the coming of winter.


Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and unwittingly I happen to be reading two books perfect for the occasion.

 
Participating in The Global Reading Challenge, I learned of The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, which tells the story of Aref, a 3rd grader who will soon be moving from Oman to Ann Arbor, Michigan so his parents can attend graduate school. Each morning, I read a little bit of it to my 10 year old daughter and we learn about Oman as Aref and his grandfather travel around the country, collecting memories and attempting to comfort and sooth Aref’s fears about moving to Michigan.

 
In addition, I’m listening to The Three Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway. This book tells the story of poverty stricken Japanese-American children living in Maui and Soichi Sakamoto who has the dream of turning them into Olympic champions. Through incredibly difficult circumstances and training routines, they become world class swimmers, but the world events of the late 1930s and early 1940s change their lives drastically.

 
Take some time this month to learn something new about Asian or Pacific Islander culture or both.


If it's not one thing, it's your Mother

Don’t you love reading or listening to something you never want to end? Ok, sure, it’s not fun when it finally does, but it’s cool that it was so good you didn’t want it to be over. Ah, well, such is life! And such was the case for me with listening to If It’s not one Thing, It’s your Mother. Julia Sweeney reads her own writing, and she puts such life into her thoughts, her storytelling, other people’s voices. She’s funny, thoughtful, compassionate, honest.
Apparently she wrote this book in the space of a month. (How does somebody do that?!) During that time, her daughter and husband were both away on other ventures. She starts off relishing the time to herself and by the end, can't wait one more minute till they’ve returned. In between, we (dear readers) hear about how she became a single mother, how later she and Mulan and her husband,Michael, became a family, how she juggles career decisions with other life issues…and just other cool life stuff.
Truth be told, it was the funny title which drew me in. Then it was Sweeney’s funny, interesting way of writing and narrating her essays which kept me engaged. Until, sadly, the book ended.


The Summer Before the War

My book group’s choice for April is The Summer Before the War, the new book from Helen Simonson, author of the popular Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Although we haven’t yet met to discuss it, I’m confident my reading friends will have enjoyed it and we’ll have a good conversation.

The story is set in a small town in England just before World War I. It begins with the arrival of a new teacher – Beatrice Nash – younger and prettier than expected. The war first touches the town when some Belgian refugees arrive, then as the town’s young men go off to war with a sense of adventure.

This novel evolves – it begins as a pleasant small town, with the English class snobbery, and becomes an account of war and its aftermath. Some of the reviewers call it a “novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal.”


Learn How to Fold All That Joy

Marie Kondo started a throw-everything-away organizing trend with her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book that advocates for getting rid of anything in your home that doesn’t spark joy. Some people seem to think her method, called KonMari, is extreme or even a little saccharine, but I think it makes perfect sense: who wouldn’t want their home to be filled with things they love and devoid of things that annoy them? That’s why I’m reading her follow-up book, aptly titled Spark Joy. Spark Joy goes into more detail regarding the storing of items; how to fold clothes, display beloved items, and organize other accoutrements. It also addresses a number of questions Marie Kondo has received since publishing her first book, such as getting through the untidy stages of tidying and keeping things that don’t spark joy but are necessary (she gives a screwdriver as an example). I recommend starting with the first book, but if you need more information or inspiration than that, or you just like cute illustrations, I definitely recommend following up with Spark Joy.