Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
“The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth,” sang Geddy Lee, lead singer of my favorite band Rush when I was a teenager growing up in a Chicago suburb. This is not the case in Shaun Tan’s book of mini-surreal masterpieces, Tales From Outer Suburbia. In these suburbs, there is a water buffalo that answers questions in an empty lot, a dugong (manatee type creature) that appears on someone’s lawn, ICBMs in everyone’s backyard, and a man wandering around in a diving suit.
I found the stories from Tales From Outer Suburbia to be a little too bizarre at first, but my compulsion to finish books that I’ve started carried me through until I slowly became enchanted. The stories feature physical manifestations of the hopes and fears of the people who live in these suburbs and they wove their way into my psyche and released strong feelings of wonder, healing, and letting go. The strange story lines somehow open you up and leave you thinking about them long after you have read them.
I especially identified with a story about two brothers who have a map of their suburb and decide to walk to where the map ends to see what is there. It reminded me of a 10 mile hike my brother and I took to complete the hiking merit badge. We weren’t going to get “out in nature” anytime soon, so we just decided to walk around our Chicago suburb (which, oddly enough, included a stop at the public library to pick up some 8mm films). The experience did have a surreal feeling and it completely changed the way I felt about where I lived. Walking gives you such an intimate connection with your surroundings and it empowered me, as I went to places I had only gone with my parents up to that point.
I was so struck by the book that I asked my son if I could read him the extremely short stories before he went to bed. He agreed and loved the stories and I got to have the nice experience of reading aloud to him that I hadn’t had in several years and to talk a little bit about what it is like to have an older brother who is always right.
Tale From Outer Suburbia
Actually, if you look around, pessimism does seem to be the cool thing to do. The media only reports bad news (oh, yeah, I forgot the occasional story about a police officer trying to get a cat out of a tree. And because I have a cat I'm pretty sure it’s thinking: "I'll come down when I want thank you very much.") Most TV shows promote a very disturbing image (Maury). It wasn't until the 1960's that we thought maybe we should start figuring out what makes people happy and good—"Positive psychology" was born. Evolutionary biology has been banging its head against the wall for decades trying to explain how, just how could a thing like altruism exists! When people say "I'm a realist," they really mean "I'm a pessimist." Why is that?
Cicero said it best: “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity."
In the end there are a lot of reasons for us to be pessimists, the most obvious reason being this: we are bad. But that’s only half the truth. And only half the truth can lead to complacency, setting the bar way too low, not respecting yourself or others, clouding your judgment, being more likely to not help. Course it goes both ways: naive optimists who don’t accept evil have their own problems (read Voltaire's Candidefor a famous lashing of Optimism).
What about War?
Of course war is the cruelest and most horrendous thing in the history of human beings, and it happens too much. But what is amazing about war is the amount of effort the government has to go through to actually convince us to do it. Think about it. First, they have to convince the public that it’s a “just war.” This isn’t very easy. Second, they might have to force people to go (draft). Third, they have to turn a person into a soldier, by systematically breaking them down and building them back up. Sound “natural” to you? Rousseau pointed out that war is not between people anyway. Soldiers are pawns in a political chess game. And lastly, if you manage to put a young man on the front lines, gun in hand, picture of family in pocket, taught to kill, good luck getting him to actually kill someone. In World War II, for instance, a study found that only 15% of all soldier in combat used their guns at all. That means that not only 75% refused to kill, but refused to even use their weapons in combat!
Sadly, the book doesn’t make a good case for the other side of the story—all the amazing and good things that happen daily, yearly, throughout history. I'm still looking for that book, although I recommend Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.
I go outside. I pass a person on the street. They make eye contact. They nod. An amazing show of respect by complete strangers. So much in a nod! An ambulance goes by, perhaps saving a life at that very second. People are laughing in the park. A cookout? Ministry with Community feeds people every single day. The entire day will pass and I will not see one person harming another person; that will be a normal day. A church offers free breakfast. United Way clothes the poor. My mom calls just to say hi. A person watches a movie and cries. 40 million more people get health insurance. A person devotes their life to cure cancer. Okay, I’ll stop. As the character in American Beautyonce said, yes it might be hard to take all the suffering in the world—but it’s equally hard to take in all the goodness, all the beauty. Press on, you Optimists! You are creating the future!
The Brighter Side of Human Nature
Dr. Lobosky, who probably dictated this book to an intern, a red faced old school doc from the 70’s, raging mad about all the problems with health care, talking about the good ol’ days when doctors actually saw their patients... Anyway, he was hopeful when President Obama talked about a single-payer system, a public option, universal access, and letting Medicare negotiate for lower drug prices. But alas money and politics! The special interests (insurance, drug companies, trial lawyers) gobbled up Obamacare and spit it out. It’s mutilated, complains Lobosky, to the point that it may not solve the larger problems it began to solve in the first place. Like affordable access and care for all.
Now I must admit I really liked listening to this doctor rant and rave about everything, but eventually he does offer some solutions:
- Everyone has insurance and pays through the same system (single-payer system)
- Everyone gets the same coverage (universal access)
- Force insurance companies and hospitals to be not-for-profit: if a company must choose between profit and patient care, they will choose profit. After all, they have stock-holders to make happy. He sees this as a glaring conflict of interest.
- Protect doctors from getting sued so much
- Force drug companies to make new drugs, not just “copy-cats”: and increase their patents so it will be worth their while.
- Use evidence-based medicine: don’t waste resources by doing procedures that are unnecessary or don’t work
- Death Panels! This is called “rationing” in the health care debate. It boils down to the fact that we have a finite number of resources in our health care system. So if a person insists on getting a procedure that probably won’t work and probably won’t help their quality of life, then, the argument goes, they should have to pay for it instead of the government. Or perhaps a charity would.
This book will propel you into the health care debate. It’s written by a politically moderate doctor who has a unique view in the trenches. At times he sounds arrogant, and he knows it. I found myself laughing. But this issue is no laughing matter. I highly recommend.
We have many other books on health care reform.
It's Enough to Make You Sick
The good news: we are wired to be decent, empathetic people. The bad news: it takes a little work and envirornmental factors to foster that empathy.
The authors think we are failing in many ways. 80% of Americans are only really close to a family member, 25% say they trust no one with their secrets. Only 32% of Americans agree that “most people can be trusted” compared to 58% back in 1960. “The amount of time spent playing freely fell by nearly one-third between 1981 and 2003…the number of hours that children spend playing outside…was cut in half…only 57 percent of elementary school districts currently require recess” (295). “Two-thrds of children under six live in a household where the TV is on more than half of the day—even if no one is watching” (in 1/3 the TV is always on) (296). “On nearly all measures of social life…Americans tend to have fewer and lower-quality interactions with one another than our parents and grandparents did” (229).
The book stressed the enormous important on a primary caregiver, a individual that is always there for them. Babies die without them. A study compared babies raised in orphanages compared to babies raised in prison with their mothers. 37% in the orphanage died by 2 years old (none in prison died). A rich family hired several nannies to take care of their baby. When the child would get "too attached," the mother would fire the nanny and hire a new one. The child learned to never become attached to people. That boy ended up raping a disabled girl in high school, possibly a sociopath.
It's always important to remember that our genes do not seal or fate. The majority of children of addicts do not become addicts (they are simply at a higher risk than non-addict parents). Our upbringing and the environment decide what genes are "expressed" in us. Nature and nurture. And the book has amazing stories of people who, against the odds of nature and nurture, led good lives.
Well, I could go on and on about the interesting stories and studies that this book goes over. From why Scandanavians are so happy and healthy, to why women get a rush of heroin-like oxytocin when they look at their baby, to why TV is bad for children (yes, even baby Einstien!). If you want to read about empathy development in children, parenting, psychology and brain science, this is the book for you.
Born for Love
Having spent the first part of my KPL career working in the Teen Services area, I had the opportunity to be exposed to a whole new genre of literature that I’m quite sure didn’t really exist when I was a teen. As a result, and because I had to know what I was talking about when recommending books, I read perhaps a disproportionate amount of teen literature as an adult. Among some of my favorites, in no particular order, were:
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt
I Am the Messenger by Marcus Zusak
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
Going Bovine by Libba Bray
As I review this list, I recognize that the overriding theme of most of these titles is self-identity, obviously a developmental hallmark for kids between the ages of 12 and 18. I also recognize honest characters, humor, and intelligent writing as some common features of many of these books, things that I would think are important to kids today who are looking for a book that will be worth the time it takes to read…no small task in this digital age of immediate gratification.
What’s worth noting, however, is that those themes still speak to me as an adult and that sometimes, tackling them through the eyes of young protagonist gives me just the perspective I need in my own life.
If you haven’t been to the Teen room lately, you owe it to yourself to check it out and perhaps find a book that will appeal to you.
I was excited to discover that Fay Weldon has a new novel out, Habits of the house, the first of a planned trilogy. Set in England at the end of the 19th century, it follows the attempts of the Earl of Dilberne to solidify his family’s financial situation. From a brief summary I’ve read, it sounds like a rich American heiress might save this titled British family teetering on the brink of financial ruin, but in Weldon’s hands, it is sure to be a compelling and surprising read (and surely all the Dilbernes’ problems will not be solved by the end of the first book).
When I learned of the existence of this book, I immediately placed a hold on it, and I’m going to read it while I await the arrival of Mary Roach’s newest book, Gulp.
Habits of the house
The Dark is a brand new picture book from two children's books luminaries: Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. Laszlo is a boy who is afraid of the dark until he actually gets to know it. The dark lives in the basement but comes to visit Laszlo upstairs in his room one night. Then Laszlo goes down to the basement. All of this sounds terribly foreboding but is refreshingly resolved.
The Dark could be helpful with those ever common afraid of the dark childhood fears. But the way that the dark and Laszlo are presented with language and illustration is well worth the read for any age.
It's no secret that I love Amy Krouse Rosenthal's books. At least it's no secret in the Children's Room. I just love her charming characters and the way she plays with words and typography. My favorites are the books she has done with Tom Lichtenheld. With Amy and Tom together, it's sure to be a great book. The newest is called Exclamation Mark! and it's a great story about the importance of celebrating our differences and being happy about what makes us special. I love that this book teaches such an important concept in a fun way and that in the end the differences between Exclamation Mark and his friends, make the entire group stronger! You can find more of Amy's books here. And more Tom Lichtenheld books here.
Hilary McKay is one of my favorite authors (her series that includes Saffy’s Angel is terrific) and now she’s written a couple of stories for kids who are ready to read short chapter books. Lulu and the Dog from the Sea is her newest. Lulu is certain that the stray dog living on the beach just needs a friend . . and it could be her!
Lulu and the Dog from the Sea
Every time I stumble across a book like Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, I'm amazed that more readers - of all ages - don't read middle grade. The Aviary is very Gothic in setting and tone and simultaneously bursting with colorful characters, a unique combination. There are secrets and magic, plus a good dose of realism and a lesson or two as well. It actually reminded me a bit of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
The main character, Clara, is a delightful character: headstrong, adventurous, and incurably curious. I would have enjoyed The Aviary based solely on the premise and setting, but Clara made me love it. Her curiosity was engaging and infectious, ensuring that the reader was never plagued by a dull moment or stale passage, simply because Clara herself was always plotting her next move and going off on some adventure.
Since The Aviary is in many respects a mystery, there are many great elements I feel I can't really comment on in much depth. I can, however, say that every detail in The Aviary comes together quite elegantly and I was left completely satisfied by the ending. I spent much of the novel hypothesizing about how everything fit together... I liked that the mystery wasn't ridiculously easy to solve, but all the pieces of the puzzle were there, waiting to be put together by the reader and the intrepid Clara.
The Aviary is one of wonderful titles that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. It is, plain and simple, a wonderfully written and imagined novel and didn't feel at all confined to one specific reading level. It could easily be a read for the whole family and will appeal to those who usually read young adult or adult titles.