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Staff Picks: Books

The Wright Brothers

Once again, Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough has written a very readable history, this time telling the behind-the-scenes story of Wilbur and Orville Wright in his new book, The Wright Brothers.

Most of us know the basic story of the brothers….they owned and operated a bicycle shop by day and taught themselves the theory of flight by night. Their trials and errors, the close family relationships, their time in France which propelled them to international fame, and their patent battles in the US courts are less well known and make for compelling reading.

It is interesting to realize how far aviation has come in just about 100 years…from Kitty Hawk to the moon. As with other books from McCullough, this one also shares the story of the individuals behind important times in our history.


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.

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.

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.


Fifty years later and after the sudden death of his wife, Bin travels across Canada to find his biological father who was lost to him during the Japanese internment camps in World War II. He is running both to and from his profound grief.

I have read many books about Japanese internment camps in the US, but didn’t know that Canada did likewise; about 22,000 Japanese Canadians were interned and 120,000 Japanese Americans. Requiem is set in the 1940’s camp, the late 1990’s with memories of his wife and son, and today with Bin’s drive across Canada to the camp area he vowed never to visit again.

This sobering story is well written and moving. It may well be one of my favorite fiction books of the year, although published in 2011.

Crusade for Justice

The Google Doodle that marks Ida B. Wells’ 153rd birthday today begins by reporting that the American journalist was a voracious reader, consuming all of Shakespeare and Dickens before she turned twenty. As a journalist and newspaper editor she was a prolific writer and truth teller even in the face of racial inequality and mob violence. When thugs destroyed her printing press because they opposed her newspaper’s message against segregation, Wells kept on. 

The library has several biographies of Ida B. Wells along with her memoir, Crusade for Justice. Wells was married to fellow journalist Ferdinand L. Barnett who went on to practice law and became the first black state's attorney in Illinois. Their daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, edited Crusade for Justice. At its publication in 1970, Elizabeth Kolmer wrote: "Besides being the story of an incredibly courageous and outspoken black woman in the face of innumerable odds, the book is a valuable contribution to the social history of the United States and to the literature of the women's movement as well."

The Magic Mirror

Kamara had a hard day at school. One of the boys called her names and used some nasty words talking about her. The one bright spot is that she is on her way to gramma’s house. Kamara knew that gramma would make her feel better. And gramma did. Gramma sent Kamara to clean the mirror upstairs. It was a mirror that had been passed down from her great grandmother to her grandmother and it turned out to be a magic mirror. When Kamara started rubbing the mirror she saw another young girl’s eyes staring back at her.  Through the eyes of women throughout the past centuries Kamara was able to see the violence, hatred and poverty that women of color have faced throughout history. Through it Kamara sees humiliation and determination. She sees pride, beauty and courage.  

There is a lot of history in this very small book. In The Magic Mirror Zetta Elliott does an amazing job of teaching history and courage. She sends the message to young girls that they are not alone.

At the Water's Edge

This new title by Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, is another well written period novel, this time World War II in a small village in the Scottish Highlands.

It is a love story, an examination of the impact of war on a naïve young woman, the search for the Loch Ness monster, and a husband’s spiral into self-deception. At times the story is quite believable, others times it is a stretch. I did keep reading to the end though.

I consider this a good beach read, better than many of that unofficial genre.


Happy Loving Day

Today marks the 48th anniversary of legal protection for interracial families and their right to marry throughout the nation. The landmark case, Loving V. Virginia (1967) and the story behind it, has recently been transformed into an illustrated children's book called The Case for Loving: the fight for interracial marriage. Sound interesting? Check out the HBO-produced documentary about this significant legal case and its historical importance.

First Ladies

One of my fields of study in addition to librarianship has been political science, so it naturally follows that I would be an eager viewer of C-SPAN. In fact, I have been known to watch Senate hearings at 3:30 a.m. The program on which this 2015 book is based, though, comes on at the more reasonable time of 8:00 p.m. on Sunday evenings. Susan Swain, the moderator of C-SPAN's series on first ladies of the United States, is in my opinion one of the finest interviewers on TV. In this book she has compiled material from the series that originally ran in 2013 and 2014 and is now being replayed. The result of her efforts is, under one cover, an absolute treasure of information and little-known facts about the presidents' spouses, and by extension, the presidents themselves, their families, and events concurrent with their time in the White House.