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Staff Picks: Books


Leslie Jamison’s book of essays, The Empathy Exams, begins with her experience working as a medical actor. What is a medical actor? I had the same question. It is an actor that is given a profile of someone with a particular ailment and symptoms and personality. Then they will have a mock appointment with a medical student so the student can practice diagnosing the illness. However, they aren’t just practicing the clinical part, but the social skills part; the ability to empathize with their patient and create a relationship where the patient would be willing to talk freely about their illness.

Can you practice empathy? Can you practice empathy when you know the person is just acting?

These are some of the questions she explores in the first essay. After that, the most difficult ultramarathon race, a prison in West Virginia, mines in Bolivia, and a tour of South Central Los Angeles are just a few of the places she will take you on her nuanced and moving dissection of empathy.

Known and Strange Things

My favorite writers are those whose writings tend to defy rigid categories. I’m interested in voices whose passionate minds are rich with curiosity and whose texts feel less like someone rooted to certainties and more like an interrogation of social reality as a shifting terrain of beliefs butting up against power dynamics, history and politics. Over the past few years I’ve been drawn to books of essays and memoirs whose authors are fascinated by a wide range of subjects and themes. Teju Cole is my kind of writer and the kind thinker that our times require in order to make sense (or at the very least question) of complex issues. And in this book of 50 essays, he pulls it off with a beautiful prose that is inviting and accessible. His newest book Known and Strange Things: Essays is a wildly perceptive book that packs a punch even though it resists feeling ‘ideological’ or like someone shouting truths at you. From his interest in photography to James Baldwin’s experiences in Switzerland, to his love of literature to his various travels around the world, Cole’s erudite voice is that of someone whose sparkling mind finds immense joy in the world’s fertile landscape of ideas and culture.

Unveiling The Cloud Forest Dwelling Olinguito

Olinguito, from A to Z! by Lulu Delacre is an award winning alphabet book written in both Spanish and English. It takes the reader on a journey accompanying an intrepid zoologist searching out the elusive olinguito. An olinguito is a mammal recently discovered to be a separate species. Related to the raccoon, olinguitos live exclusively in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

This beautifully illustrated volume features the many plants and animals who call the cloud forest their home. It also includes the author's notes about the real discovery of the olinguito, as well as additional information about the cloud forest, how the illustrations came to be, on being an explorer, and a glossary of the various cloud forest plants and animals(with their Spanish pronunciations).As an added bonus, there is a built-in puzzle/game that will have younger readers going back to play more than once.

Very creative and truly Magnifico!

Inequality in these United States

I did not read this book. But you should. Really, try it.

I couldn’t read it. I can only tolerate a certain amount of charts, graphs, statistics, and facts upon facts. I’m exaggerating. Actually, my complete lack of knowledge and interest about the economy, and how it works, was a major roadblock for me. I simply didn’t have an entry point. Also, it's quite academic.

The book traces the history of inequality in America from the very beginning—when we were drinking the King’s tea—to now. When was it best? (hint: not now). When was it worse? (hint: now). It’s a story that ebbs and flows and, most importantly, it’s a story about policies and how those policies limit or expand inequality. In other words, this is not art, witchcraft, or guessing: policies have predictable results, and politicians should be clever enough to know those results. At the end of the book, the author’s try to make policy suggestions. The two that I remember were investing in education and having an “inheritance tax” (that is, taxing wealth that is passed on and inherited…yeah, that's right; it’s un-American, darn it! Pull yourself up by your own bookstraps!).

If you read books about the economy, and are interested in this social justice issue, you will enjoy this well researched book.

Hidden Figures

If you liked Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars or We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, place a hold on the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book is already being adapted for the big screen, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.

Meet Michael Eric Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson is one of the rock stars and public intellectuals of our time, a deep thinker on issues that face African Americans in America. He is a protégé of another African American giant, Cornel West and, like Aristotle ditched Plato, the two have sort of parted ways on certain ways of thinking. This book, a collection of interviews and TV debates, shows the depth and breadth of his thought, on various issues: mass incarceration, integration, Affirmative Action, black leaders, President Obama, and much more (he wrote a book titled Is Bill Cosby Right?, for example). Dyson has a unique view on rap culture and has become known for defending it. Reading his interviews is almost a disservice to his rhetorical gifts and stage presence, so do yourself a favor and supplement this book with copious youtube watching. The beauty of this book is all the other great thinkers that you meet along the way.

The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright

With 446 pages printed on high-quality paper, this 2016 book is a prime example of the proverbial hefty tome, which can be perceived as a metaphor for its great content. This book is put forward as being the first one devoted to exploring Frank Lloyd Wright's designs for remaking the modern city. Contrary to most public opinion, mine included, Wright was not an architect of buildings only. Rather, he spent considerable time producing designs of what the surroundings of the buildings should look like. Filled with maps, photographs, plans, and drawings, this book is divided into three sections: 1) Suburbs in the Grid: The New Streetcar City, 2) The City in Question at the Dawn of the Automobile Age, and 3) New Visions for the City Center: Urbanism under the Hegemony of the Automobile. Anyone interested in American urban history in general or Wright's work in particular will enjoy this significant publication.


This book was recommended to me by Ruth Wilson, from Local History. She said something like, “I don’t know why, but I feel like you would enjoy this book.” Well, I read it, liked it, and now I’m recommending it to you!

The concept of the book is a little unique. Throughout the book, the author invites you to text responses to various questions. For instance, at one point she asks the reader to look up and see if there is a rainbow in the sky. Do you see a rainbow? Submit a picture!

Besides the interactive bits, this book is a great collection of life observations, focusing on the joy of everyday life and human connections, but also acknowledging the profound sadness of the brevity of life.

More information on the book, and to access to the accompanying content go to this website. But check this book out soon! According to the introduction “The texting component is limited by geography, volume, and the passage of time.”

How Science Really Works

We’ve all heard the story of how science is supposed to work. Science observes things, and records things, and collects facts about the world. Then, these facts magically and beautiful converge into laws, patterns, generalizations. And these converge into beautiful theories about the universe. And knowledge builds on itself gradually, forever and ever amen.

Well, not really, not exactly. Luckily, the history of science is more interesting than that. Sometimes science works in fits and starts, breakthroughs and massive blunders; or, as the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn would say, science is the opposite of gradual and incremental. Rather, science is the toppling of old paradigms with completely new ones.

This book focuses on the stories of four great scientists and their magnificent failures. Good read.

An Ode to Girl Power!

Keep Climbing, Girls was written by Beah Richards, the great actress. In LisaGay Hamilton’s introduction of the book she refers to Beah Richards as an actress, a poet, a dancer, and a political activist. Miss Hamilton mentions a collection of poems that Beah Richards had published entitled A Black Woman Speaks, where Beah encourages us all to reach far beyond society’s expectations and to fight for a world that embraces freedom and equality for all.

“The moral of this story is: to keep climbing, girls, and let no one prevent you.”