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Staff Picks: Books

The Nordic theory of everything : in search of a better life

I picked up this book expecting something completely different than what it actually is. The quick blurb I read about the book said something about how the author had moved from Finland to the United States, and was reflecting on how Nordic attitudes could improve life in the US. I was expecting a light-hearted look at cultural differences, such as food and traditions. What I got was an in-depth look at the how the political policies of the Nordic countries reduce income inequality, provide universal healthcare to all citizens, provide free education through college, and guarantee medical and parental leave. This allows people to live relatively free from the constant fear of doing into debt for medical or higher education. As she says, the American dream is alive and well in Finland.

Another great thing about this book was the effort she took to seriously consider all of the concerns that Americans have about adopting these types of social programs. For instance, she addresses the concern over higher taxes by comparing real tax rates for people in all income levels.

If you’ve ever looked at taxes, health insurance, college loans, or child care and thought “There has to be a better way”, this book might be for you.

American Treasures

December 26, 1941: “He wouldn’t fully relax until the B & O National Limited reached its final destination the following morning, but the fact that the train was leaving Washington, D.C., carrying its cargo, accompanied by two of his finest agents, was a promising milestone in the mission.”

So what was on the train? American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address describes the work to safely secure and store these documents, an effort lead by the Library of Congress. So where were they stored? I’m not giving that secret away – read this fascinating book.

I won’t say this is a page-turner but the back stories about these three documents and how they came to be, is quite interesting as are the efforts to protect, preserve, and appropriately display them over the years. 

The importance of these documents seems especially relevant in this season of political rancor. I have renewed, deeper appreciation and respect for the founding fathers and the documents they drafted.

Dog Lost- Humanity Found

Pauls Toutonghi's "Dog Gone: A Lost Pet's Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home" is the beautifully written true account of one family's life prior to their son's losing his spirited dog, Gonker, and what transpires during the ensuing search for him.

Gonker is a six-year old golden retriever mix who on Saturday, October 10, 1998 is hiking the Appalachian Trail with his best friend Fielding Marshall when, without any warning, he bolts into the woods. Fielding calls and calls for his dog to return, but to no avail; Gonker simply vanishes into the surrounding wilderness.

The book is not only about the meticulous search that the family conducts for their beloved dog(who happens to be especially fond of fresh doughnuts), but also delves into the lives of each member of the Marshall family-father John, mother Ginny, sister Peyton and of course, Fielding. Author Toutonghi becomes immersed in their story. He probes deeply into their family history, highlighting both it's good and ugly faces. He also examines the strong bind between canines and humans from various historical, literary, psychological and philosophical perspectives.

To heighten the tension of the search narrative, it is revealed that Gonker suffers from Addison's disease which requires him to receive an injection every twenty-three days.The author then counts down the days to Gonker's demise at the beginning of each chapter in the final third of the book.

Great read! I thoroughly enjoyed it! This is a great title to pick up in October which, as it turns out, happens to be "Adopt a Shelter Dog Month". So, plunge yourself into this wonderfully heartfelt true story of humans and their relationship with their pets. Then, if you should get inspired, go out and adopt a new four-legged canine friend from any one of the following local animal welfare organizations: Animal Rescue,Animal Control Shelter, SPCA, Animal's Best Friend, Richland Animal Rescue, etc.

Who knows, maybe as with some members of the Marshall family, the life you end up saving  just may be your own.

Don't Miss Out!

 In case you didn’t know, right now in theatres there is a brilliant movie called the Queen of Katwe. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, and David Oyelowo, it follows the journey of a young girl named Phiona living in the slums of Uganda who learns the game of chess and quickly skyrockets through the ranks to be a national champion, even competing in international competitions for the rank of Grandmaster. In the process, she is able to improve life conditions for herself, her family, and uplift the community as a whole. 


Right after the credits rolled, I headed straight to the bookshelves to find out more about this incredible individual. The biographythe movie is based on, by Tim Crothers, fleshes out the inspirational tale a bit more to  include the political climate of the country at the time, and gives more details about some of the great challenges Phiona Mutesi was able to overcome.  Don’t miss out on this great story of true life triumph! 

Atlas of Cursed Places

When people see the term 'atlas' in the title of this book, they will probably think it's such a large tome that they will have to try to park close by when they come to pick it up. This is not the case with Atlas of Cursed Places : A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations, since it has only 142 pages. Speaking for myself, I'll be honest and say I'm not going to use this scary volume as a 'travel guide,' but I enjoyed looking at it nonetheless. The back cover of the book describes some of the locations to visit, which include the dangerous Strait of Messina, location of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, India, where the ground constantly burns with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 5 million migrating bats darken the skies; and Aokigahara, a forest near Mt. Fuji in Japan, the world's second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge. And, what would a book of this nature be without a chapter on the Bermuda Triangle? A bonus is that each entry is accompanied by a vintage map.

Open Letter

In a free and open society the right to express oneself, even when the content of that expression may result in offending a small or large number of citizens is at the heart of the constitution’s first amendment and while France (the country most responsible for influencing our nation’s focus on personal liberties) may not have a first amendment, it does have a strong legal and cultural tradition of support for free speech. As Banned Books week comes to a close, check out the posthumously penned Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamaphobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression for a perspective that will likely provoke moral squirming from both ends of the political and religious spectrum. From the jacket, “A searing criticism of hypocrisy and racism, and a rousing, eloquent defense of free speech, Open Letter shows Charb’s words to be as powerful and provocative as his art. This an essential book about race, religion, the voice of ethnic minorities and majorities in a pluralistic society, and above all, the right to free expression and the surprising challenges being leveled at it in our fraught and dangerous time”.

When strangers meet

Here is a book that puts into words the extremely satisfied feeling I have gained from a lifetime of striking up conversations with random people in airports, playgrounds, stores, restaurants, libraries, on the street, and probably most of all, in LONG lines at various places! Kio Stark’s When strangers meet : how people you don’t know can transform you encourages intentional interaction with strangers, which can be a life-changing, enriching experience. Even brief word exchanges can help you become more a part of your community, and others. There is a world out there of people longing for connection…don’t just look down at the sidewalk.

Banned Books Week: Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl and an Adolescent Thief

When I was eight years old, I stumbled across a book in my elementary school library that sparked a decades-long obsession for a certain period of world history and sewed the seeds for the activist I would become as an adult -- Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl.

The books in my elementary school library were sorted by grade level. Students were only allowed to check out books from their grade range. A few times per week, my class would visit the school library for an hour of quiet reading. During one of these visits, as I walked up and down the aisles, an off-white book with a black and white photo of a young girl caught my eye. I remember studying her face, her large eyes, and wondering what she was thinking about at the moment that school photo was taken. Intrigued, I plopped down on a whistle chair in a private corner and started to read.

Within minutes I was sucked into the world of this 13-year-old girl and quickly lost track of time. When my teacher informed the class it was time to check out, I panicked. I knew I would not be able to check out the book, as I was not old enough. I was desperate to finish it, so I made the drastic choice to slip the diary into my backpack. I remember sweating, being terrified as I walked out of the library, waiting for a firm hand to grab my shoulder and an angry voice to call me out as a thief. I thought about how much trouble I would be in. Despite the fear, I wasn’t swayed. I HAD to finish the book.

Anne’s life was drastically different from mine, but in many ways, I related to her. I too found escape through writing. I too found relief in creating other worlds I felt safe in. I identified with her feelings of isolation and desperation for a different life -- a different, kinder world. By the time I neared the end of the diary and realized she died alone at Bergen-Belsen, I was heartbroken. I felt like I had lost a friend, a confidant.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but at 8 years old, I had experienced the age-old, controversial practice of book banning. Someone else deemed the material was inappropriate for someone my age. Someone else determined I was not mature enough to handle the content of the book, and demanded my school prevent students of my age access to it. This someone had no idea the impact this book would have on my life. While I absolutely do not condone stealing, I do not regret my decision. 


Since Anne’s father Otto Frank published the first edition of the diary in 1947, Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl remains one of the most challenged books in history. The original published diary, and the subsequent releases of the rest of Anne’s writings have been under constant fire by opponents, mostly Holocaust deniers, who have questioned their authenticity.

Because of the persistent accusations against the diary in the 1960’s and 70’s, Otto Frank led the charge for a number of investigations. The most extensive was executed in the early 1980’s by the Netherlands Forensic Institute at the request of the National Institute for War Documentation. The result was a 250-page report that irrefutably proved the authenticity of Anne’s collection of work.

It is ironic that ever since her death at age 16 in 1945, Anne Frank is still being persecuted. As recently as 2013, a mother of a seventh-grade girl in the Northville school district in Michigan claimed the definitive version of Frank’s diary, which includes passages left out of the original 1947 edition, is too graphic for young students. The mother felt Anne’s description of her developing body was “pornographic.” Fortunately, the school district rejected the challenge.

Anne Frank’s diary is considered one of the most influential, historical documentations of The Holocaust, which is exactly what Ann hoped to accomplish when she rewrote her diary with the intention of publishing it when the war was over. Anne wanted to “go on living, even after her death” and she has. Hatred and ignorance extinguished her life, but despite continued oppression, her voice is louder than ever.

Where Am I Now?

You may remember Mara Wilson as Robin William’s youngest daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire or as Nikki Petrova on Melrose Place, but she’s most widely known for her wonderful performance as Matilda in the 1996 movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel. She left Hollywood when she was a teenager to pursue her true love—storytelling—and study at NYU. Her first book, a memoir called Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, is a smart, funny take on her experiences going from an odd child to a well-adjusted adult. I imagine a grownup Matilda would love to read this.


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.