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Staff Picks: Books

Olivia's Birds

Olivia's Birds: Saving the Gulf was published in 2011 when its author and illustrator, Olivia Bouler, was just 11 years old. When Olivia learned of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, she offered to donate her paintings of birds to anyone who donated money to the Audubon Society; she helped to raise over $150,000 for recovery efforts. The book offers interesting facts about birds, but what really stands out are Olivia's beautiful illustrations. Her book also includes kid-friendly tips on how to preserve our planet.


Fancy Party Gowns

This book is about Ann Cole Lowe, the fashion designer who designed and made Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress

She was once the best-kept secret in the society because she was a black woman. 

This book tells you about the inequality in the society back then, and more importantly, how Ann overcame her obstacles.

She was commissioned to make Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown and all the dresses for the wedding party. She had been working hard for months, then just ten days before the wedding, a water pipe burst and flooded her store. Most of the dresses were destroyed. Yet, she did not give up and was able to recreate all the dresses in days. 

This book inspired me. When the society treated black people very unfairly, Ann focused only on what she loved to do and what she could do. She did not give up because the society told her to. She showed the world her talents and that with determination and hard work, every one can accomplish great things, no matter your race or skin color.

College in prison

College in prison by Daniel Karpowitz tells the story of the Bard Prison Initiative, which began as a pilot program to provide a high-quality liberal arts education to a small but demographically representative group of prisoners in New York State. The results showed that many prisoners thrived in the program and post-incarceration secured rewarding careers or pursued graduate and professional programs. The success of the program, which is now a nationwide initiative benefitting thousands, demonstrates that education might have a more profound effect on the future success of prisoners than therapy.

Spring is in the Air

Although it’s still chilly out, I’m planning for spring. I’m expanding my garden this year and want to make sure that I select plants that are low maintenance and work in a partially shaded area. Perennials for Midwestern Gardens: Proven Plants for the Heartland by Anthony W. Kahtz has become my go-to book for learning about perennial options for Southwest Michigan’s hardiness zone; it’s an comprehensive resource with information on planting and maintaining flowers and shrubs that work in well in our climate and in a variety of garden styles.

An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Some time ago I wrote in this space about the Atlas of Cursed Places : A Travel Guide to Dangerous and Frightful Destinations. One of my colleagues remembered that when she saw the book Atlas Obscura and mentioned to me that I might like it as well. She was right. I did. This book is wide-ranging in that it covers both natural and human-made attractions throughout the world, even in remote locations of Oceania and Antarctica. I checked to see what there was in Michigan and found three entries: 1) Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills, 2) Hoegh Pet Caskets in Gladstone, and 3) a test tube called Edison's Last Breath in Dearborn. I might add that this book is not for the faint of heart (or stomach), since some of the material is rather macabre, such as the photo of bodies in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo on the island of Sicily. Shall I go on? Listings for The Netherlands include the Teylers Museum which has been lit only by sunlight since it opened in 1784, and Micropia, which is a zoo that includes only organisms that are invisible to the naked eye, such as bacteria, yeasts, and molds. And there are more by the Dutch: The Hash, Marihuana, Hemp Museum; The Torture Museum; and the Cigar Band House. Or, one could go to Minneapolis and visit Orfield Laboratories, which has an anechoic chamber that's called the 'World's Quietest Room.' What a world we live in. What a book!

The Youngest Marcher

After last month's historic marches, I smiled when I happened upon the book The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist. This picture book tells the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, the youngest participant in the Birmingham Children's March in 1963. She was nine years old when she volunteered to participate in coordinated action challenging racial segregation.

This book is most appropriate for readers in elementary school. Older readers should check out We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March for more in-depth information on Audrey Faye Hendricks, other young participants, and the history of the march.

Do Gooders: Saints or Syndrome?

What if every single time you bought a coffee from Starbucks, you felt an extreme amount of moral guilt? After all, 2 dollars donated to Oxfam can have a significant effect on real people that are really suffering in the world. This is a fascinating look at the personal stories and science behind and opinions about "do gooders." And we are not talking about merely nice people (sometimes they're not pleasant). These are moral saints, people who take morality to the extreme, who get rid of all their stuff and travel to a foreign country to save lives. 

The book has a nice structure. A chapter about a do-gooder is followed by the history of what culture has thought about do-gooders in general - whether that be philosophy, religion, psychology, literature, or common sense. Throughout history, do-gooders have made is uncomfortable, and therefore we have been skeptical about them.

I think do-gooders come in two different flavors. First, there are people who have intense empathy. When they think about a person drowning, the feel as though their own child is literally drowning. These people can easily become moral saints. Second, there are people who take moral principles seriously. Utilitarian morality, for example, says that we should relieve the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people. If we took that seriously (as the philosopher Peter Singer has argued), we would instantly donate most of our income to Oxfam, leaving just enough money for us to subsist. That's a haunting thought for some people.

Conclusion: the writing style of this book is very run-on. It took me a lot of patience, but was worth it.


Feline Piano Composer and Player

Based on a true story, Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed by Leslea Newman with illustrations by Amy June Bates is a real winner for both music lovers and cat enthusiasts.

The book introduces us to Moshe Cotel, a composer for the piano who lives in a very busy and loud city. But far from it being a distraction, Moshe uses the urban noise as the starting off point for his numerous compositions.

One day, while on his usual afternoon walk around the neighborhood, he hears the forlorn "mew" of a tiny, lost kitten. He picks up the black and white tyke, names her Ketzel, and brings her back to his apartment.

Shortly thereafter, a letter arrives in the mailbox from the Paris New Music Review announcing a piano competition contest with one stipulation: No piece may be longer than sixty seconds!

Moshe exclaims that creating a musical work of such brevity is impossible, so he places the letter aside, not giving it another thought. On the other hand, the next day he decides to give it a try. From the outset, he is completely stymied by the task. Whatever he starts, he cannot finish. He takes his failures so hard that he temporarily stops playing the piano.

One day Ketzel creeps across the piano keys with all four paws much to Moshe's auditory delight. He proclaims Ketzel to be a musical genius who has composed the unbelievable: A piece for piano with a distinct beginning, middle and end that lasts only twenty-one seconds! So he names the solo composition "Piece for Piano: Four Paws", and sends it off to the contest judges.

A few weeks later, he receives a letter saying that although he didn't win a prize, the submitted work does merit a certificate of special mention, which comes with an invitation to attend a concert where the piece will be played.

Moshe sneaks Ketzel into the concert hall in his vest pocket and every time the young pianist chosen to perform the work mentions Ketzel by name, the kitten responds with a loud, emphatic MEOW!

Animals are forbidden from entering the concert hall but after Moshe reveals that Ketzel is the actual composer of the piece, both are allowed to remain. Several encores later, "Piece for Piano:Four Paws" turns into musical history.

Ketzel becomes quite famous and receives a royalty check in the amount of nineteen dollars and seventy-two cents which purchases many cans of yummy cat food.

An engaging tale, wonderfully reminiscent of Nora, the piano playing cat of YouTube fame!

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Rocky, a wonderful cat companion of one of my colleagues, Keith.



The life of a Pullman Porter

The Pullman Porter: AnAmerican Journey touched my heart. Not just because there is a lot information that is not generally known but also because my father had been a porter many, many years ago. My brothers, sisters and I romanticized his journeys and thought my dad looked handsome in his uniform. We were not aware of how demanding, degrading and difficult the job was. After all, what did being a Pullman Porter have to do with shining shoes, babysitting, making beds and other forms of servitude?

 After reading this book, I realized also that my dad was traveling and learning things about this country. He was able to learn what was important to share with his children and to teach us what we needed to know in order to survive in America. The Pullman Porter: An American Journey was written by Vanita Oelschlager. Vanita Oelschlager publishes books for children that teaches morals and values I personally appreciate her acknowledgement of the Pullman Porters.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what happened in the years leading up to the atrocities. The question people always ask is "how could this happen?" The following books discuss, in great detail, the events that led to genocide in Europe.

The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power by Richard J. Evans

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945 by William Sheridan Allen

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a great website examining the history of the Holocaust, and also features resources on preventing future genocides.