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Staff Picks: Books

The Fire This Time

As a white person, watching the events unfold at Charlottesville this past weekend has been a bit surreal—and, of course, deeply disturbing. It’s hard to believe that in 2017 white nationalism is so prominent, but I think it’s hard for me to understand because I don’t experience oppression based on my skin color the way people of color do. As a white person, I’m often wondering what I can do to help change things and make it so white supremacy has no place in our country. As a librarian, I know that knowledge is power and that we have plenty of knowledge behind our doors. I can suggest a few books for anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of racism in the U.S.: The Fire Next Time and The Fire this Time: a new generation speaks about race. The Fire Next Time is a beautiful, poetically written essay by James Baldwin, published in 1963 as the civil rights movement was gaining traction in the U.S. I read it when I was 20, in a Black American Literature class at WMU, and was deeply moved by Baldwin’s experiences as a black man and his passionate call for racial justice 100 years after the end of slavery.

Fire this Time: a new generation speaks about race is a collection of essays and poetry by black writers published in 2016 and edited by Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for her novel Savage the Bones. It’s response to Baldwin’s essay and a continued rallying call for racial justice over 50 years after his essay was originally published. Comparing and contrasting these two books is a great way for white people to deepen their understanding of racism and its hold in the U.S.

If you are interested in learning more about racism or other topics related to social justice, I suggest searching “KPL Social Justice collection” in our catalog. The library has begun gathering works on a variety of topics, such as racism, feminism, ableism, and more in an effort to support social justice in the Kalamazoo community. You can learn more about our social justice commitment here.


Picturing America

Subtitled ‘The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps,’ this is definitely a book that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. It is beautiful. Printed on high quality paper, the maps contained herein are not the kind one would find in a standard atlas, and certainly not on Mapquest or Google maps. These are, in their own way, real works of art. The subdivisions are maps to amuse, maps to instruct, maps of place and region, maps for industry, maps for war, and maps for postwar America. I automatically looked to see if there was a map of Michigan and found the 1935 ‘Map of the Commonwealth of Michigan,’ which shows illustrations of natural features and major industries. The essence of these maps can be summarized in the tribute on page 33 to mapmaker Ernest Dudley Chase: The man who turns the prose of maps into the poetry of art. What a wonderful addition to KPL’s collection!

Steven Universe: Art and Origins

Animated series Steven Universe is one of the most beautiful shows on television right now, and has inspired a large and devoted fandom. I think what sets the show apart is that every element of the show is carried out thoughtfully – from the story and development of the characters, to the sound editing, even the tiniest details nestled into the background are often purposely drawn in to foreshadow future events.

It’s always a treat to watch a new, perfectly polished episode of Steven Universe, but it is fascinating to flip through this book and see early character designs and to read Rebecca Sugar’s early thoughts about who the characters were when she pitched the pilot and who they have now become. In this book we get to see rejected episode storylines, unfinished storyboards, and we also get to read about the creator’s childhood, the projects she was working on in college, and the cartoons she watched growing up. A must read for any fan of the show.


If you’re looking for a little inspiration for your patio or trying to perk up your houseplants, Potted: Make Your Own Stylish Garden Plants is a great place to start. Potted offers a variety of fun d.i.y projects to build cool and creative pots for all sorts of plants, whether in outdoors spaces or inside on a windowsill. The instructions are detailed and include a number of pictures, making these d.i.y’s a no-brainer.

Flying Couch

There’s something about graphic memoirs that allows them to resonate with me in a way that normal memoirs do not. When a person’s life story is illustrated in frames that capture snapshots of their life, it’s even easier to put myself in their shoes and feel their experiences.

If you’re looking for a particularly beautiful graphic memoir, look no further than Flying Couch, by Amy Kurzweil. This book encompasses two stories: it is centrally focused on Kurzweil, and her experience finding her identity as a Jewish woman, and along the way, the memoir is interlaced with her grandmother’s story of surviving the holocaust by assuming the identity of a Polish gentile girl. I loved learning about a culture so different from my own, and traveling with Kurzweil as she goes from Michigan, to New York, Israel, and Germany. I heartily recommend it.

Deep Look at Universal Basic Income

Unfortunately I stopped reading this book because the writing was dry and academic. I don't mean it had a lot of data, graphs, and analysis - of course it did - I just mean that the writing wasn't smooth, entertaining, exciting, or narrative-driven in any way.

Oh, what have I become! I used to love these books! Apparently my college days of reading are gone.

I also got a little bogged down in the economics, which is frankly over my head.

Anyway, this is a very deep look into the concept, theory, and practice of Universal Basic Income. See my previous post for a more accessible, American-centered book on UBI (which I did read from cover to cover).

The book ends of proposing what they call a "partial basic income." In this model, every citizen gets a monthly paycheck from the government. This amount is "partial" because it doesn't lift a person above the poverty line. Other welfare programs are kept intact and used to get people over the poverty line. It's more complicated than other UBI models, but the authors go into great detail on why they think it's the right call.

Understanding the Southern White Tea Party

The author, a liberal Berkeley sociologist, goes into the deep south and follows around a handful of Tea Party advocates. Although the premise of this book is noble - to empathize with the far right - I really wonder if this book accomplishes that goal. Or worse, backfires. I feel that Republicans might be offended that these people are giving them a bad name, especially after reading the book. And I feel that Democrats, especially liberal ones, might be horrified at what these people saying - verifying their worst fears and creating even more distance between them.

The overarching political narrative of the book is about poverty, lack of education, environmental disaster, corporate greed, and politicians who don't care about the people they serve. I'm talking about Louisiana, and all of these forces hit the people very hard. The personal stories of how these Tea Party people were affected by politics and things beyond their control is disturbing indeed and that, to me, is where a lot of compassion kicks in. In the end, you get a sense of where they're coming from.

Still, there is an undercurrent of racism in the background, lingering and festering; the idea that white taxes are going to those lazy, poor urban people "cutting in line". The author doesn't want to judge, so she remains silent. That needs to be addressed.

I would really love to hear other thoughts about this book, from people with various political views.


Never a Dull Moment: 1971, the Year That Rock Exploded is the title of this 2016 book that puts forth the assertion that 1971 was a pivotal year in popular music. There are 12 chapters, one for each month of the year. Many musicians and groups are discussed, such as Don McLean, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Carpenters, Carly Simon, Judy Collins, and many, many more. For readers under say, 55, this could be an introduction. For others like myself, who as a freshman and sophomore at WMU experienced 1971 firsthand along with lots of its music, it will be a review of the music complemented with stories of the musicians. These accounts are given a backdrop of the political, social, and economic climate of the time, adding to the interest of this book.

Solving poverty by giving people money

What happens when all semi trucks are self-driving? Heck, Uber even has it in their business plan. What about robots that flip burgers (already exists)? And software that makes investments? And 3D printers that can build a house in 24 hours (already exists)? Some experts (not all) have predicted that the future holds the elimination of jobs (blue collar and white) that we have never seen in human history.

Universal Basic Income - i.e., giving every citizen $1,000 dollars a month, no questions asked - was a new concept to me until a few months ago. Since then, I've watch some TED talks, heard about it in the news (Hawaii is considering it apparently), and read this nice book by Andy Stern, former labor leader turned UBI proponent.

The idea is very simple (albeit expensive). Rather than have welfare programs, we simply give all citizens enough money to get them out of poverty. The "universal" part is also simple: everyone gets the money, no matter if they work or not. Even rich people.

What really impressed me about the book is how it convinces the reader that both ends of the political spectrum - progressives and libertarians - have solid reasons to get behind UBI, and therefore it might even get support. Martin Luther Jr. supported UBI, but so did Richard Nixon. The book is enjoyable, easy to read, and is full of interviews from a spectrum of various thoughts. 

Jim Harrison Redux

When Jim Harrison passed away last year it was not necessarily a big surprise to anyone, the 79 year old's health had been declining for years and his unrepentant overindulgent lifestyle was the thing of legends, yet rereading Harrison’s work this summer has given me a heightened sense of what has been lost with his passing. Novelist, smoker, drinker, glutton, hunting/fishing enthusiast, force of nature, and personal friend to the notorious Hunter S. Thompson, these all describe Harrison, but you also must add poet, devoted husband, bird watcher, gourmand, and naturalist to this list in order to get a more complete picture of the Michigan native. Harrison also happens to be responsible for some of my absolute favorite book jacket bio photos, which themselves give you a sense of the man's distinct lack of care for what anyone thought of him. A new collection, A Really Big Lunch, of 47 previously published rambling essays dating from between 1981 and 2015 about food, writing, life, and much more, is a great way to get to know Harrison. I can almost guarantee that reading some of these essays will compel you to explore more of Harrison’s work, of which there are copious amounts of novels, novellas, nonfiction, and books of poetry to enjoy. Like the legendary 37-course, 11-hour lunch from which the essay collection gets its title, delving into Jim Harrison’s bibliography can be a time commitment, but in the end it proves deeply satisfying.