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Staff Picks: Books

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. 

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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.


Empathy

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.


Known and Strange Things

My favorite writers are those whose writings tend to defy rigid categories. I’m interested in voices whose passionate minds are rich with curiosity and whose texts feel less like someone rooted to certainties and more like an interrogation of social reality as a shifting terrain of beliefs butting up against power dynamics, history and politics. Over the past few years I’ve been drawn to books of essays and memoirs whose authors are fascinated by a wide range of subjects and themes. Teju Cole is my kind of writer and the kind thinker that our times require in order to make sense (or at the very least question) of complex issues. And in this book of 50 essays, he pulls it off with a beautiful prose that is inviting and accessible. His newest book Known and Strange Things: Essays is a wildly perceptive book that packs a punch even though it resists feeling ‘ideological’ or like someone shouting truths at you. From his interest in photography to James Baldwin’s experiences in Switzerland, to his love of literature to his various travels around the world, Cole’s erudite voice is that of someone whose sparkling mind finds immense joy in the world’s fertile landscape of ideas and culture.


Unveiling The Cloud Forest Dwelling Olinguito

Olinguito, from A to Z! by Lulu Delacre is an award winning alphabet book written in both Spanish and English. It takes the reader on a journey accompanying an intrepid zoologist searching out the elusive olinguito. An olinguito is a mammal recently discovered to be a separate species. Related to the raccoon, olinguitos live exclusively in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

This beautifully illustrated volume features the many plants and animals who call the cloud forest their home. It also includes the author's notes about the real discovery of the olinguito, as well as additional information about the cloud forest, how the illustrations came to be, on being an explorer, and a glossary of the various cloud forest plants and animals(with their Spanish pronunciations).As an added bonus, there is a built-in puzzle/game that will have younger readers going back to play more than once.

Very creative and truly Magnifico!


Inequality in these United States

I did not read this book. But you should. Really, try it.

I couldn’t read it. I can only tolerate a certain amount of charts, graphs, statistics, and facts upon facts. I’m exaggerating. Actually, my complete lack of knowledge and interest about the economy, and how it works, was a major roadblock for me. I simply didn’t have an entry point. Also, it's quite academic.

The book traces the history of inequality in America from the very beginning—when we were drinking the King’s tea—to now. When was it best? (hint: not now). When was it worse? (hint: now). It’s a story that ebbs and flows and, most importantly, it’s a story about policies and how those policies limit or expand inequality. In other words, this is not art, witchcraft, or guessing: policies have predictable results, and politicians should be clever enough to know those results. At the end of the book, the author’s try to make policy suggestions. The two that I remember were investing in education and having an “inheritance tax” (that is, taxing wealth that is passed on and inherited…yeah, that's right; it’s un-American, darn it! Pull yourself up by your own bookstraps!).

If you read books about the economy, and are interested in this social justice issue, you will enjoy this well researched book.


Hidden Figures

If you liked Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars or We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program, place a hold on the new book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book is already being adapted for the big screen, starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae.


Meet Michael Eric Dyson

Michael Eric Dyson is one of the rock stars and public intellectuals of our time, a deep thinker on issues that face African Americans in America. He is a protégé of another African American giant, Cornel West and, like Aristotle ditched Plato, the two have sort of parted ways on certain ways of thinking. This book, a collection of interviews and TV debates, shows the depth and breadth of his thought, on various issues: mass incarceration, integration, Affirmative Action, black leaders, President Obama, and much more (he wrote a book titled Is Bill Cosby Right?, for example). Dyson has a unique view on rap culture and has become known for defending it. Reading his interviews is almost a disservice to his rhetorical gifts and stage presence, so do yourself a favor and supplement this book with copious youtube watching. The beauty of this book is all the other great thinkers that you meet along the way.


The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright

With 446 pages printed on high-quality paper, this 2016 book is a prime example of the proverbial hefty tome, which can be perceived as a metaphor for its great content. This book is put forward as being the first one devoted to exploring Frank Lloyd Wright's designs for remaking the modern city. Contrary to most public opinion, mine included, Wright was not an architect of buildings only. Rather, he spent considerable time producing designs of what the surroundings of the buildings should look like. Filled with maps, photographs, plans, and drawings, this book is divided into three sections: 1) Suburbs in the Grid: The New Streetcar City, 2) The City in Question at the Dawn of the Automobile Age, and 3) New Visions for the City Center: Urbanism under the Hegemony of the Automobile. Anyone interested in American urban history in general or Wright's work in particular will enjoy this significant publication.