Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
How profound! That Maya Angelou’s last book would be His Day Is Done! Like Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, the “global renaissance woman”, has been a crusader for many. For me, her life has paralleled Mandela’s. She, too, has opened many doors and as she says in the book about Mandela she has enlarged many hearts with tears of pride.
Though this is a small book of poetry, it makes an awesome footprint
and melts a little bit of your heart. And now we can say Her Day is Done.
His Day is Done: a Nelson Mandela Tribute
I heard a story on Michigan Radio yesterday that was about the future of medicine, and it reminded me of this book. The future of health care, as imagined by this author, is basically this: people take DNA tests at home to figure out what’s wrong with them. Meanwhile, the government deregulates the pharmaceutical industry (political argument), which allows them to create a drug for every specific thing that’s wrong with people (molecular medicine). Then, armed with my detailed knowledge about what’s wrong with me, I go to Walmart and buy the exact drug that I need. And, lucky for me, there’s a generic version (economic argument)—cheap! And, the author thinks, this solves the problem of expanding health care costs—we cut out the very expensive middle-man—doctors and hospitals (which he calls “helpless care”). That’s the nutshell (oversimplified) version.
Recently I talked to a person who actually makes drugs for a large pharmaceutical corporation. I asked him “do you think drug companies are too regulated?” His answer was complex. First, he partly disagreed with this book—he said they are not too regulated. Instead of getting rid of the FDA, he said they need more people on staff; expand it. He also mentioned that the FDA needs to “get into the 21st Century,” which agrees precisely with this book. They are using outdated science (read the book for details) which slows down drug production.
the cure in the code
When Saroo was five years old, he became separated from his older brother and lost on a train in India that took him about a thousand miles from his small village. With a limited vocabulary making it difficult to properly communicate who he was and where he was from, and unable to trust most people he encountered, he spent several weeks surviving on the streets of Calcutta alone, until he eventually landed in an orphanage and was adopted by a family in Australia. Twenty-five years later, studying satellite images on Google Earth, he was able to locate his village. Saroo Brierley’s biography A Long Way Home begins with Saroo returning to his small village for the first time since he was lost as a small child, finding his tiny former home, and asking current neighbors if anyone knows his mother, brothers, or sister. Then a man says, "Come with me. I'm going to take you to your mother."
I don't know yet exactly how his story ends, as I am only halfway through the book. I am almost to the photo spread in the center of the book and I must admit I have peeked ahead. I am completely engrossed in this book and can't wait to finish it. It is just an astounding story.
A long way home
Library of Congress American Folklife Center: an Illustrated Guide…the title sounds bland, but the book/CD set is anything but! It covers a wide cross-section of folk art and folk lore in the United States.
Most amazing is the accompanying CD. With 35 tracks in all, there are songs from all over the U.S., including a song sung by Zora Neale Hurston, storytelling, personal interviews with many different people about aspects of daily living and the impacts of war and slavery. Some recordings are over 100 years old. Altogether they demonstrate the richness and variety of cultural experience in our country. This would be a great teaching tool to help bring an American history topic to life for your students.
Library of Congress American Folklife Center: An Illustrated Guide
When you hear the phrase "welfare queen," what do you think of? Although technically speaking the phrase itself - welfare queen - isn't racist, I think we all know it actually is. Indeed, it was meant to be, by the politician who carefully created the myth. This book is about the history of such language. Specifically, it's about how politicians use this language to gain votes by creating fear, by focusing demographically, by dividing smaller groups from bigger ones. As for the three main targets, we are talking about African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.
Although the author mostly blames Republicans and Fox News for racial politics, he does blame the Democratic Party too (he is not too kind to Clinton, for example, and he criticises Obama's strategy when it comes to race). Turns out the insatiable thirst for votes is bipartisan. But the major theme throughout the book is how the Republican Party specifically and intentionally became the white man's party in the late 1960's, beginning with the so called "Southern Strategy," which was summarized rather brutally by Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist:
"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."
This is a complex book on racism and politics in America.
dog whistle politics
In this book we received last fall, Smithsonian Institution Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture Richard Kurin provides a wealth of information regarding 101 objects held by that museum. At 762 pages, this publication was no small effort, I am sure. Organized by historical era, the author provides photographs and commentary on such items as the Appomattox Court House furnishings, Abraham Lincoln's hat, a bugle from the U.S.S. Maine, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, Thomas Edison's light bulb, a Ford Model T, Helen Keller's watch, Louis Armstrong's trumpet, a World War I gas mask, Dorothy's ruby slippers, a Berlin Wall fragment, Neil Armstrong's space suit, an RCA television set, and a door from one of the fire trucks that was at the scene of 9/11 in New York City. This is a quality publication from a very fine establishment.
The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects
Recently I discovered a new author. Her name is Bich Minh Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who came to this country in 1975, when she was just a few months old, with her family on one of the last boats out of the country before the war really heated up. She has since taught at Purdue University in the area of fiction and creative non-fiction. Her book that I found most enjoyable is, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. It’s a memoir of her family eventually settling in Grand Rapids, and how each of them, a father, grandmother, sister, and a couple uncles adapt as outsiders and struggle to fit into a very Dutch community. The story takes the sisters from a young age through their school years and how they go off in different directions. The grandmother is the rock of the family as she hangs on to her Vietnamese customs. And the father is a hard worker, but often distances himself from the family.
This book was selected as the “Great Michigan Read” for 2009-2010. This is a program similar to our own “Reading Together” event held every year where a book is picked and the whole community reads it, but in this case there are many programs around the whole state connected with the chosen book. Not only was the story interesting, but you would like it if you are familiar with the Grand Rapids area as there are many references to the city. This book is available in print and audio at KPL.
Stealing Buddha's Dinner : a memoir
The World According to Bob is the sequel to the NYT bestseller A Street Cat Named Bob by author James Bowen. It is a well written and much anticipated book worthy of becoming another hit for the James and Bob duo.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with their tale, here is a quick recap. Two years prior to the writing of this second work, James Bowen was a down on his luck, recovering addict who happens to find a ginger/orange cat with open wounds on his legs and body. The two form an instant bond, and although James assumes that the cat he names Bob will return to the streets after he nurses him back to health, Bob has other plans. He steadfastly refuses to leave James’ side, following him wherever he goes about town.
As the saying goes “cats choose you and not the other way around”, and it was certainly true in this case.
The pair become inseparable, existing on the streets of London, each one helping the other heal the wounds of their mutually troubled past. James gives Bob companionship, food, and a place to crash, and in return Bob gives James new hope and a purpose in life. James learns to appreciate the minute things of life – his threadbare flat, his job selling a street magazine called “The Big Issue,” and now his newly arrived feline friend.
While the first book documents their first meeting and their lives in the early part of their relationship, this sequel delves further into what their life was like then, the people they met, (both good and evil), and the many experiences they shared along the way. It also goes into explaining how the first book came to be.
In September 2010, a reporter from the Islington Tribune interviewed James and took the famous photo of Bob perched on his shoulder. A few days later, there appeared a poignant article about James’ past and how he and Bob met, titled: “Two Cool Cats...the Big Issue Seller and a Stray Called Bob.”
Soon thereafter, a major London publisher approaches the duo about a possible book deal. James does not expect this book about himself and his stray cat to become a big hit. Rather, he thinks that it would end up being a nice little one-time windfall. But then events start indicating otherwise.
One day, completely unannounced, Sir Paul McCartney and his family stop by the street corner where they work selling the magazine to admire Bob. Instead of the little handful of people that James expected to be at the first book signing, over 300 show up, and all 200 copies available sell out in the first half hour. In addition, James and Bob are treated as celebrities with photographers and a television camera crew in attendance.
Having been translated into 26 languages, the book becomes an international bestseller. And for the first time in their lives, James and Bob become financially secure. No, Bob and James did not become millionaires, but they are able to live a comfortable existence with James enjoying having some money in the bank and even paying taxes like a true member of society. He also enjoys being able to give something back to Blue Cross, the animal charity that was so kind to both of them during their struggles in earlier years.
The first book also produced other positive windfalls. It greatly improved the relationship James had with his parents. And it also seems to have had an impact on people’s attitudes to London’s “Big Issue” sellers and the homeless in general. Many folks wrote to James to express their awareness of homeless people, and many others have stated that the book gave them an incentive to make a special point of engaging the homeless in a conversation instead of simply ignoring their plight.
The story of James and Bob seemed to connect with people who were facing difficult times in their own lives, while others expressed a newly gained strength from animals’ ability to heal human psyches.
With their account, these two cool cats touched the hearts, minds and lives of many, many others. And that may be the best windfall of all, for all of us.
The World According to Bob
Leon Leyson was number 289, the youngest on the list. The list that would eventually mean life for more than a thousand Jews. Leon was Number 289 on Schindler's list. His powerful memoir, The Boy on the Wooden Box tells his story to the young people of today what it was like surviving the Holocaust. The reader sees this horrific time through the eyes of a child. His youthful perspective brings a powerful message of survival and humanity. Leon was only a boy during WWII, spending most of his years from 10-19 in Jewish ghettos, work, concentration and displaced persons camps. The hunger, loss, pain and suffering are real. Separated for months at a time from his family, Leon found the will to survive inside of him. If you are a reader at 40 or a child at 10 reading this book, you will feel the struggle. You will hold your breath as the family is forced to separate. You will wonder how evil can exist. You will wonder if Leon ever sees the faces again of his brothers. Share this book with your children or students.
I think the dedication page is its own recommendation for reading this book: "To my brothers, Tsalig and Hershel, and to all the sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, parents and grandparents who perished in the Holocaust. And to Oskar Schindler, whose noble actions did indeed save a "world entire." - Leon Leyson
The Boy on the Wooden Box
I first heard about Dee Williams and tiny houses in the fall of 2010, when I worked at a public library in New Hampshire. Because she knew I'd lived in housing cooperatives for several years and was interested in simplicity and sustainable living, one of my coworkers shared this article from Yes!, a magazine to which our library had recently subscribed. Though fascinated with the idea of tiny house living, I couldn't imagine what life in 84 square feet would actually be like. So when I read earlier this year that Williams wrote a book about her tiny house experience, I couldn't wait to read all about it.
After I learned about Dee and her tiny house, I read Little House on a Small Planet, the only small house book I could get my hands on back in 2010. More recently, information on and interest in tiny houses has exploded - a google search for 'tiny houses' yields over 20 million results! - and I've since spent possibly one thousand hours on the internet reading about tiny houses and the people who inhabit them. I've learned that tiny housers aren't unified in their reasons for tiny living. Some people are interested in living a more sustainable life, using fewer resources and decreasing their impact on the planet. Others are attracted to tiny house living for financial reasons - it's possible to live mortgage-free in a tiny house. Still others want to downsize and simplify their life, focusing on what is truly important to them. This was Dee's motivation, after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The Big Tiny chronicles her tiny building adventure and offers insight into day-to-day tiny living. The book's tone is charmingly conversational; I felt like I was sitting next to Dee on her porch, listening to her story straight from her mouth.
If, like me, you can't get enough of tiny houses, check out the new documentary, Tiny: A Story About Living Small, which follows the process of building a tiny house and features interviews with several tiny housers, including Dee Williams.
The Big Tiny