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Staff Picks: Books

Very Good Lives

Very Good Lives is the commencement address J.K. Rowling delivered to the Harvard University class of 2008, where she talked about the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination.

Regarding her “epic failure” in life, Rowling said, “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.”

How true is that! Life is made up of countless setbacks and disappointments. They all helped shape who we are. We learn from these experiences and become better friends, family, and citizens. 

The second part of the address talks about the importance of having the ability to empathize. If we can imagine ourselves into other people's lives, we all can help create a better world. 

This little book gave me comfort. It tells me that there’s beauty in failure. No matter how reality doesn’t align with expectations, I should still press on. Failure is essential to success. 


 



The Phenomenon

Last Sunday, I was in my car and I happened to turned on Fresh Air on NPR to the sound of Terry Gross introducing Rick Ankiel as this week’s guest. The name was vaguely familiar to me as a moderately enthusiastic baseball fan, and as the story unfolded on the radio, I recalled the events of game one of the 2000 National League Division Series played by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. A game where a guy they were calling “the next Sandy Koufax”, a 21 year old who had secured a slot in the St. Louis Cardinals system at the age of 18 with a signing bonus of $2.5M, managed five wild pitches in a single inning. He chalked it up to the yips.

To athletes and fans, that is likely a term with which they are at least passingly familiar. The yips refers to the acute psychological and physiological occurrence in which a motion or action, previously reproduced thousands of times, suddenly becomes impossible or unreliable at best. It’s a disconnect between the body and mind of the athlete that can strike suddenly and spiral completely out of control as anxiety from each successive mistake steadily mounts.

In The Phenomenon, Ankiel and co-author Tim Brown describe the events that day at Busch Stadium and its aftermath. The Cardinals would go on to win that game and the NLDS, but for Ankiel, the damage was done. He would spend the next several years playing minor league ball at lower and lower levels while he battled alcoholism, injury, and the yips in an effort to pitch his way back to the majors - which he did, only to reinvent himself as a power-hitting center fielder.

This is not just a book for baseball fans or sports enthusiasts in general. It’s an eerily relatable biography with a focus on family, mentorship, and personal struggle both superficial and unseen. More than a story of one of the most bizarre and unlikely baseball careers in recent memory, The Phenomenon is a case-study in the concept of mind over matter, both for better and worse.


A Really Good Day

Having been misdiagnosed with Bipolar II, and later with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), Waldman begins her book at a point where all her remedies for depression and mood swing have essentially failed her. She has stumbled across the book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys by James Fadiman. Waldman, a previous federal public defender and law professor who taught “The Legal and Social Implications of the War on Drugs” at UC Berkeley, is also the mother of four. Disturbed by the impact of her emotional instability on her family, she begins taking microdoses of LSD following Fadiman’s protocol. Having no interest in an LSD prompted spiritual enlightenment or hallucinatory experience; she is motivated instead to join Fadiman’s experiment by the outcomes described by others who have participated: namely more positive mood and increased ability to focus. 

A Really Good Day, is written as an amusing daily journal of her experience “microdosing” which she intersperses with the compelling story of LSD as a pharmaceutical and then social drug. She is forthright in her concerns regarding the use of LSD as an illegal substance and hiding this use from her children, and her internal conflict with taking what is perceived to be a “recreational” drug. Waldman explores the effects of microdosing on depression and anxiety through her witty and deeply personal disclosure, which she balances with a rich and informative history of LSD. Her skepticism, overcome by self-described “desperation” for “A Really Good Day” is met with outcomes that are surprising and provocative.


Racism in a Chicago Court

This book is horrifying.

For anyone concerned about racism in the criminal justice system, this is a must read and a truly original contribution to the conversation. Drawing on thousands of hours of actual observations in the Cook County criminal court system (Chicago), Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve exposes the various forms of racism that exist within the culture. The scene is set by a sad and shocking context: a huge courthouse, built next to a huge jail, built in a poor area where mostly people of color live. The people getting charged and the families of defendants are overwhelming people of color, mostly from that area. Next, you have an almost all white cast of judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and defense attorneys—all commuting to work from a different area. Even the professionals find this very peculiar and odd, although they become desensitized to it eventually.

Cook County is a highly efficient cattle call of defendants taking a “plea” (pleading guilty for a reduced sentence) and going to jail. After finishing the book, the words “due process” and “justice” and “adequate representation” are non-existent. Most shocking is the more overt, “old school” racism. For example, a prosecutor will openly mock a defendant by talking in Ebonics. Or the term “mope” is the official term for most defendants in the system: lazy, criminal, undeserving defendants that suck up taxpayers money, a term which closely resembles another racially charged word that we don’t say anymore. Or the way people of color are segregated from the court proceedings, kept in a bullet proof room in the back of the court. These are defendants families, victims’ families, court watchers—again almost all Black or Brown. Frequently, they are dealt with in a rude, humiliating, or even aggressive way by judges or sheriffs.

Although the writing is a bit bad, repetitive, and academic (and I almost put the book down for that reason), I am enriched by the content and original research that went into it. The entire history of racism is brought to bare and applied in specific ways. The author has keen insight into the nuance of how racism becomes cultural and institutional—it’s not just a few “bad apples”. She goes out of her way to get the perspectives of prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys—all who do not, by the way, end of looking very good at the end. In fact, the defense attorneys end of looking surprisingly bad. You feel the sheer exhaustion, outrage, and guilt the author feels as she finishes the book. After all, in order to get the “inside” scoop, she essentially goes undercover as a clerk and takes part in the culture that she is writing against. And for what end? To expose the reality of day to day life in a real court system, something that can only be gleaned by observing it.

Ongoingness: the end of a diary

"She's a Proustian minimalist on the order of Lydia Davis, both in the way she distills complex thoughts on time and memory into pure essence and in how she examines writing as a means of control." –-Kirkus Review

So much more than a chronicling of her obsessive drive to record the totality of her life, Sarah Manguso’s bold memoir meditates on her relationship to her voluminous diary (over 800,00 words and 25 years in the making), its purpose and her decision to reduce its impact after becoming pregnant. In her spare yet precise prose, we discover Manguso’s documentarian ethic is more than simply an act of recounting the mundane gist of everyday life. It is an attempt to negotiate with the transience of things and moments, their meanings and the indifference of time’s inexorable erasure of memory. Ongoingness: the end of a diary, a slight text, holds the weight of bold, philosophical ideas about the relationship between writing and living.


The Red Parts

On the eve of publishing a book of poems about a murdered aunt, whose 1969 death was thought to have been part of a killing spree of a serial killer who targeted college age women near the Eastern Michigan and University of Michigan campuses, author Maggie Nelson unexpectedly received a phone call from a police detective in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who tells her that he believes he's cracked the case and is about to arrest a new suspect. This is where The Red Parts, Nelson's brilliant true crime memoir begins. 

Local readers may recall the case given the suspect was employed at Borgess Hospital and lived in nearby Gobles. More than simply a straightforward account of the criminal trial, Nelson critically probes her own complicated family history in addition to trying to make sense of our culture of violence and sexism. Available to stream using your Hoopla account and in book form, The Red Parts is a fascinating page turner from a writer with a fresh, bold voice.     


Love at First Stitch

With zero knowledge in dressmaking, I was able to make a dress and a skirt all by myself with Tilly Walnes’s Love at First Stitch!

This book is the 2014 Best Sewing Book in the British Sewing Awards. It includes seven cute projects to teach you the necessary dressmaking skills with clear instructions and photographs. You will learn a new skill in every project, including inserting invisible zippers, gathering, making waistbands, stitch in the ditch…

This is by far my favorite sewing book. It doesn't only teach you the skills, it also shows readers that sewing can be a form to express our feelings. Sewing is not an old fashion; sewing can be fun and modern! We all have the ability to create. 

Also, patterns are included. One more reason why I love the library!

 


The Unsinkable Lynne Cox

Swimming in the Sink is the fascinating true story of the accomplishments and life challenges of author and open water swim athlete, Lynne Cox. Cox, has broken many records such as swimming across the English Channel at age fifteen, being the first woman to cross the eighteen mile Cook Strait, as well as swimming in various frigid locales such as the thirty-two degree Antarctic Ocean. That last achievement she completed without the aid of a wetsuit and her swim lasted twenty-five minutes!

Her ability to withstand watery conditions that would cause most other humans to experience a life threatening hypothermic event, brought her to the attention of scientists at the University of London, with Cox sitting in a laboratory, her hand immersed in ice water and probes attached to various parts of her body.

This isn't only an account of the daredevil adventures of a cold water super swimmer, it is also the story of the very personal struggles she faces in the forms of a series of rapid losses, first of her parents and then of a much loved canine companion.It is also about illness, since Cox herself is diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which threatens her passion for swimming, her self image, and indeed her very life.

This is a fine narrative of the human journey with all it's component elements of triumph, loss, redemption and love.

 


The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting

I clearly remember learning penmanship in the early grades at my elementary school. We first were taught manuscript printing and then graduated to writing in cursive. I tried so hard to make my letters look like they did in our instruction books and on green placards the teacher had put up over the blackboard, succeeding at least some of the time. Fast forward to 2017. I have reverted to using manuscript printing a lot of the time, or at most, a hybrid of manuscript and cursive. The only time I use cursive exclusively is to sign my name on my checks, and I don’t even write that many of them anymore. What precipitated all this reflection is a 2016 book by Anne Trubek which is about ‘the history and uncertain future of handwriting.’ She says, ‘The future of handwriting is anything but certain. Its history, however, shows how much it has affected culture and civilization for millennia.’ This book is panoramic, tracing the story of handwriting from earliest times all the way down to the digital age when keyboarding in the form of texting, e-mailing and social media is so prevalent. Ms. Trubek maintains that there are artistic aspects of handwriting that need to be preserved, such as in calligraphy, but the loss of handwriting’s prominence will also ‘give rise to changes—in accessibility, in democratization, in advantages unimaginable to us now—that should be celebrated.’


Meaty

I’m late in discovering the hilarious and uncomfortably honest writer Samantha Irby. I happened to hear her speak with fellow funny feminist writer, Lindy West, at Bookbug recently, and immediately picked up her 2013 debut Meaty. I loved it and only regret that I hadn’t read it sooner. Meaty is a collection of essays about Irby’s life, touching on topics such as sex, fatness, blackness, poverty, and of course, tacos. I devoured this funny and sometimes-crass book quickly and wanted more. Luckily, Irby has a new book, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, coming out at the end of May.