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Staff Picks: Books

Recent literary award announcements

The literary awards season is now in full swing, with the recent announcements of the Man Booker Prize shortlist, the National Book Awards longlist, and the longlist for the Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Non-fiction.

The Man Booker Prize is awarded for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom. The 2015 shortlist:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The winner will be announced on October 13.

The National Book Awards honor the best American writing in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature.

Fiction 2015 longlist:
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball
Refund: Stories by Karen E. Bender
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Mislaid by Nell Zink

Non-fiction 2015 longlist:
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes
Hold Still by Sally Mann
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore
Love and Other Ways of Dying: Essays by Michael Paterniti
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith
Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White

Poetry 2015 longlist:
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler
A Stranger's Mirror by Marilyn Hacker
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes
The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips
Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab

Young People’s Literature 2015 longlist:
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz, with Kekla Magoon
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

The finalists will be announced on October 14, and the winners will be announced on November 18.

The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the United States during the previous year.

Fiction 2016 longlist:
The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Green Road by Anne Enright
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Best Boy by Eli Gottlieb
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
Prudence by David Treuer
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Non-fiction 2016 longlist:
American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity by Christian G. Appy
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security by Sarah Chayes
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser
Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green
Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America by Wil Haygood
Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi by Hayden Herrera
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family by Peter Nabokov
Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini
On the Move by Oliver Sacks
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
M Train by Patti Smith
To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg
Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers by Simon Winchester
Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

The shortlist will be announced on October 19, and the winners will be announced on January 10.

We are fortunate to have two of these authors visiting Kalamazoo in the coming months, as well as one visiting Ann Arbor.

Bonnie Jo Campbell will visit Central Library on October 15.

Ta-Nehisi Coates will be the keynote speaker for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Community Meeting on November 3.

Marlon James will give a reading at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor on November 2.

101 Two-Letter Words

For someone who loves books and reading, and is inflicted with an incurable case of curiosity, working in a library is often both a blessing and a curse. I read hundreds of book reviews every year, I see tons of books every day, and I talk about books with patrons, coworkers, and friends incessantly. On top of those sources, my love of bookstores and the existence of the internet means there are untold book discoveries to be made. All those books lead me to seek out even more books, and there's really no hope I'll ever get to all the titles that catch my eye. Earlier this week, while working in the 400 Dewey range of adult non-fiction (the section for language) I stumbled upon a newer book called 101 Two-Letter Words by musician Stephin Merritt, front man of pop band the Magnetic Fields. It's a little book of short poems, one for each of the two-letter words allowed in Scrabble. I recently started playing Scrabble again, so this book was a happy discovery. Merritt's poems make memorizing the two-letter words easier and more enjoyable. Here are a few poems:

The ai, a threatened three-toed sloth
Found only in Brazil,
munches on leaves and sleeps in trees.
I hope it always will.

Qi, in Chinese medicine:
vitality, or breath;
say it "chee," as in "Say cheese!"
Its opposite is death.

"Sh," says the librarian,
"people are trying to read.
And turn that goddamn cellphone off,
before I make you bleed."

The book is illustrated by Roz Chast, whose graphic memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, appeared on numerous best of 2014 lists and was a National Book Award finalist. 101 Two-Letter Words persuaded me to finally pick up her book and reminded me that the library's digital magazine service, Zinio, now offers access to the New Yorker, which Chast works for as a cartoonist. My to-read pile continues to grow!

Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric is a powerful meditation on race from author Claudia Rankine. It adorned many ‘best of’ lists in 2014 and was nominated for several literary awards. The slender book is an intense yet lyrical portrait of American racism in 2015 that explores both the veiled and unambiguous manifestations of this most insidious fact of life. Rankine possesses a spirited voice and expresses audacious candor in linking everyday racism with its corrosive impact upon the marginalized and powerless. Rankine’s book, characterized by a hybrid form that mixes prose, essay, memoir, and the occasional image investigates the relationship between race, invisibility and the notion of citizenship. April is National Poetry Month and for those who have not read this powerful, timely book, place it on your future reading list.

Don't Write In Library Books

Ander Monson is the most bizarre, versatile, prize-winningest writer who hails from Michigan that you have never heard about. He won the John C. Zacharis First Book Award for Other Electricities, the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize for his poetry collection Vacationland, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his book of criticism called Vanishing Point. If not for that last one, I would have had to add that the prizes he has won are just as unheard of as he is. 

I read Other Electricities several years ago which left me with a vivid impression of the mix of tenacious survivalism and self-destructiveness of the residents of the Upper Peninsula and the image of snowmobiles jumping snow banks out on to frozen Lake Superior; occasionally breaking through the ice and disappearing. 

His newest book, a collection of essays titled Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, comes out on February 3rd. Check it out and see what you think of Ander Monson and if you can resist writing in a library book about people writing in library books.

Firefly July

“What is it the wind has lost that she keeps looking for/ under each leaf?” The answer to Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison’s question may be found in Melissa Sweet’s collage illustrations. Although this looks like a book for very young children, it’s really a beautifully-illustrated collection of short American poems for all ages.

Firefly July is organized by season with poems written for children and adults. It’s definitely worth venturing into the Children’s Room to see this lovely book.


The Immortal Evening

The New York Times Book Review started a feature called “By the Book” a year or two ago. Someone, usually an author, is interviewed about their reading habits. Several of the questions are repeated almost every week like; What is currently on your nightstand?, What book are you embarrassed that you have not read yet?, or What book was a great disappointment to you?

Another one of the recurring questions is: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?” I’ve noticed that Mark Twain and Charles Dickens get invited a lot. 

In Stanley Plumly’s, The Immortal Evening, we learn about an actual dinner party involving three literary giants: William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb. The dinner took place on December 28, 1817 at Benjamin Robert Haydon’s house who was working on a painting called Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Interestingly, in the crowd around Jesus in the painting, Haydon included the likenesses of Wordsworth, Keats, and Lamb. 

If you enjoy poetry and art history, this might be the one for you.

By the way, my answer to the New York Times Book Review question would be: Wallace Stegner, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. Who would you invite?

Words with Wings

Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes is a short story told in poetic verse. The story is about a girl named Gabriella and, although her grade and age aren’t revealed, she’s probably in junior high.  Each page is a poem with a one or two word title that captures a day in the life of Gabriella who was named after the Angel Gabriel.   Her parents are now separated, she has moved to a new school, and Gabriella uses day dreaming as a way to escape life… separation from her father and being the shy new kid in class.  She day dreams when she hears any particular word and her thoughts are carried away on wings.  For example, the word Dragon takes her riding on a dragon across the sky till the sun dives into the sea.  However, both her mother and her teacher, Mr. Spicer, tell her to quit day dreaming.   “Mom names me for a creature with wings, then wonders what makes my thoughts fly.”  When Gabriella finally does stop day dreaming her mom and Mr. Spicer know that she is unhappy.  Will Gabriella ever return to day dreaming?

I like this book because it is an effective poetry story.  It is interesting that Grimes uses two different fonts to categorize the moods of the poems.  Nikki Grimes is an award winning author and this book received a 2014 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award.  Kalamazoo Public Library owns many books by Nikki Grimes.

A Nelson Mandela Tribute!

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

What does spiritual but not religious mean?

According to Pew, there is a growing number of young Americans that are not affiliated with any particular religion, a.k.a. "nones." This book, a sort of spiritual memoir by Roger Housden, is one example of a "none" trying to keep his faith. Or rather redefine it.

A very short book, almost an extended poem, his faith amounts to this: beauty, nature, kindness and love. Read poetry; look at art; walk in the woods; love people. The book is more like a memoir, a Whitman nature poem, a reflection on faith as solitary, personal, open-ended - a life-journey.

Now, I sympathize with his faith and applaud his ideals, but we must admit that this kind of faith is drastically different from the faith of many other people. That's okay. (disclaimer: I didn't read the entire book so I have no room to comment, but yet here I am commenting). Is Housden merely describing his own happy, privileged, care-free life and calling it faith? Going to Starbucks, writing best sellers, enjoying art and peotry, watching the waves through his window. Sounds great to me! But what happens when you reduce faith into a few ideals? Is anything lost? Perhaps not. Where's the pot-lucks? Mr Housden has redefined faith into a solitary pursuit of truth and beauty (nothing wrong with that, he comes from a long tradition), but let’s be honest - he is getting rid of something here. Or, another way to put it: he probably got rid of his faith, kept a few things from it (truth, beauty, love, awe), and started something new and different.

If you are spiritual-but-not-religious, and you like poetry, you will like this book.


Keeping the faith without a religion

World Book Night 2014

Last week the application to be a Book Giver on World Book Night became available! What is World Book Night? It's an "annual celebration dedicated to spreading the love of reading, person to person." Book Givers give out 20 copies of a book they love to adults and teens who may not have access to reading materials.

The folks behind World Book Night also revealed the titles that will be given out by tens of thousands of people in their communities on April 23, 2014. The list of titles includes some of my favorites, like Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

The deadline to apply to be a Book Giver is January 5, 2014. Apply here. Kalamazoo Public Library will again serve as a pick up site for Book Givers.


Kitchen Confidential