Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
About twenty years ago, I stumbled on a documentary called Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It told the story of the investigation into the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent conviction of three teenagers, casting doubt on whether the teenagers were guilty of murder or just guilty of wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, and enjoying horror films.
Over the years, the documentary filmmakers who made the original Paradise Lost have produced two other films: Paradise Lost: Revelations and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. These documentaries and other information about the case convinced some high profile people like: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to lobby for the release of these teenagers.
After a bizarre plea deal, they were released on August 19, 2011 after serving over eighteen years for crimes they possibly didn’t commit.
Now, Damien Echols, who was on death row for those eighteen years, tells his story in Life After Death. Watch the documentaries and read his book and decide who you believe.
Life After Death
Yes, I studied actuarial science before getting my library science degree, which statement probably prompts most of you to think, “I didn’t even know those two sciences existed.” But I bring this up, because I am currently enjoying reading/listening to three books on three completely different subjects, but where numbers and statistics play a big part:
The Big Short by Michael Lewis
Triumphs of Experience by George Vaillant
The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong by David Sally
Lewis’ book The Big Short is a well- known bestseller that explains the financial meltdown of 2008. It is fascinating and infuriating and may leave you swearing like a Wall Street bond trader (bond trader is worthy of replacing sailor in that cliché).
In Triumphs of Experience, Vaillant tells the story of the Harvard Grant Study, a longitudinal study that started in 1938 and has followed almost three hundred men of which the survivors are in their 90s now. The study was started as an attempt to, “transcend medicine’s usual preoccupation with pathology and learn something instead about optimum health and potential and the conditions that promote them.” The conclusions are interesting as well as the different factors they study over time that they think might lead to optimum health and the changes in the definition of optimum health.
Sally’s book The Numbers Game is to soccer what Moneyball (written by Michael Lewis who wrote The Big Short) is to baseball. As he crunches the numbers, he comes up with conclusions like launching corner kicks into the box hoping to score a goal is less valuable than just retaining possession with a short safe pass and that the team that takes the most shots on goal actually loses slightly more than half of the time.
Isn’t it great that libraries have books to please all sorts of tastes?
The Numbers Game
It took me almost a whole year to read through Andrew Solomon’s deeply moving book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. One reason is because it is so long (over 700 pages) and the other is because it was a little bit popular among Kalamazoo residents so I would have it for three weeks and then return it to fill a hold and get it back several weeks later. I don’t think this was a bad way to experience this book. It is so dense and at times emotionally draining, it was good to move slowly and take some time off.
Through interviews with parents, Solomon explores the lives of families coping with children with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities; and with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, and who are transgender. The summary in our catalog describes the book as, “elegantly reported by a spectacularly original thinker, Far from the Tree explores themes of generosity, acceptance, and tolerance--all rooted in the insight that love can transcend every prejudice. This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human.”
Do not be put off by the size of the book. If you just can’t get yourself to take on a project that big, the chapters stand mostly alone so you could pick and choose what you wanted to read. Also, just reading the introduction is highly satisfying, as you encounter more compelling and fascinating ideas than most whole books.
In the chapter on transgender children, Solomon mentions a documentary titled Prodigal Sons that was made by one of the subjects of that chapter. I was delighted to see that the library owned a copy and I highly recommend it.
Far From the Tree
Are you interested in modern art, but don’t know quite what to make of it? Do you just keep your mouth shut, because you don’t want to come across as stupid? Do you wish you had taken the time to take the Art Appreciation class in college instead of rushing through, taking only classes that fulfilled degree requirements?
Well, What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz can help you out a bit in all three of these cases. Gompertz was the director of London’s Tate Gallery and is now the BBC Arts Editor. He introduces you to dozens of artists and art movements from Impressionism up to the present, showing how each fed off those that came before and often were rebellions against the ideas of the earlier artists. My favorite part was a fun story about Robert Rauschenberg asking Willem de Kooning for a drawing so he could erase it. It’s interesting how many of the names that we use to categorize different movements were taken from derogatory reviews of their work.
The book includes some color plates of art work in the middle as well as some black and white images sprinkled throughout the text, but you will find yourself searching the internet for many of the works of art that are discussed, but not depicted. You will want to see what he is talking about and you might find yourself making your own explorations online.
This is a really easy to read and fun introduction to modern art.
What Are You Looking At?
For all those Malcolm Gladwell fans out there (which seems to be everyone considering how long his books have been on the bestseller list), you will be happy to know that he has a new book coming out on October 1st. In David and Goliath, Gladwell examines the lives of individual and team underdogs, illustrating how some disadvantages may lead to advantages in the long run and vice versa.
We already have many copies on order so you can put it on hold today.
David and Goliath
Dr. Mary Pipher brought the challenges adolescent girls face in our society to the forefront of our national discussion in the mid-1990s with her book Reviving Ophelia. Now she turns her attention to the global environmental crisis and how it is affecting us psychologically in her new book The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture, which is getting great reviews.
Publisher’s Weekly writes, “As Pipher lucidly explains, the overwhelming amount of information about the desperate state of our planet leads to stress, avoiding discussion, willful ignorance, and outright denial, while the activist's call of 'Wake up!' is an ineffective remedy. Instead, Piper distinguishes between 'distractionable intelligence,' which makes us feel helpless, and 'actionable intelligence,' which combines information with suggestions for addressing problems, thus creating hope, motivation, and change.”
Will The Green Boat have the same cultural impact that Reviving Ophelia had? It certainly is a worthy subject.
The Green Boat
In the year 2000, Daniel Suelo took out his last thirty dollars and left it in a phone booth, taking the final step in his quest to try to live without any money. Author Mark Sundeen, reports on Suelo’s adventures over the next decade, which included living in a cave in Moab, Utah in his book The Man Who Quit Money.
Some are inspired by his spiritual and philosophical journey. Others call him a freeloader. Read this fascinating book and decide for yourself. Maybe I will see you in Moab.
If you are interested, you can check out Suelo’s blog.
The Man Who Quit Money
Prompted by a library user suggestion, we decided to shelve our fantasy books in the same location as our science fiction books. Since many readers who like either of these genres often like both, we hope this makes it easier for you to find the books you want and to discover new authors and titles in which you might be interested.
Stop in and choose your own adventure.
A Dance with Dragons
“The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth,” sang Geddy Lee, lead singer of my favorite band Rush when I was a teenager growing up in a Chicago suburb. This is not the case in Shaun Tan’s book of mini-surreal masterpieces, Tales From Outer Suburbia. In these suburbs, there is a water buffalo that answers questions in an empty lot, a dugong (manatee type creature) that appears on someone’s lawn, ICBMs in everyone’s backyard, and a man wandering around in a diving suit.
I found the stories from Tales From Outer Suburbia to be a little too bizarre at first, but my compulsion to finish books that I’ve started carried me through until I slowly became enchanted. The stories feature physical manifestations of the hopes and fears of the people who live in these suburbs and they wove their way into my psyche and released strong feelings of wonder, healing, and letting go. The strange story lines somehow open you up and leave you thinking about them long after you have read them.
I especially identified with a story about two brothers who have a map of their suburb and decide to walk to where the map ends to see what is there. It reminded me of a 10 mile hike my brother and I took to complete the hiking merit badge. We weren’t going to get “out in nature” anytime soon, so we just decided to walk around our Chicago suburb (which, oddly enough, included a stop at the public library to pick up some 8mm films). The experience did have a surreal feeling and it completely changed the way I felt about where I lived. Walking gives you such an intimate connection with your surroundings and it empowered me, as I went to places I had only gone with my parents up to that point.
I was so struck by the book that I asked my son if I could read him the extremely short stories before he went to bed. He agreed and loved the stories and I got to have the nice experience of reading aloud to him that I hadn’t had in several years and to talk a little bit about what it is like to have an older brother who is always right.
Tale From Outer Suburbia
George Saunders has hit the big time. His current collection of bizarrely funny and moving short stories, Tenth of December, is getting a lot of well-deserved publicity. Saunders is always playing his characters for laughs, but never deserts them, leaving them unsympathetic. He teases out their inner dialogues until we recognize ourselves in them, and as we laugh, we know we are guilty too. I have found reading his stories a singular pleasure ever since his debut collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There is no one else like him.
Tenth of December
Books about rock stars are flooding the bestseller lists lately. Back in November, there were four in the Top 10.
Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young
Who I Am by Pete Townshend
Rod by Rod Stewart
Bruce by Peter Carlin (about Bruce Springsteen, but you probably guessed that)
I've read excerpts of Townshend's and Stewart's books in Rolling Stone magazine. Townshend really opens up and shares his thoughts and emotions in an artfully written, intellectual style. I'm not that interested in Rod Stewart so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his authorial voice and fun stories about his friendship with Elton John.
If you are interested in rock history, we have all these books and many more.
Who I Am
Books about Buddhism are very popular at the Kalamazoo Public Library, so I am always looking to buy new titles. Within the subject of Buddhism, author Thich Nhat Hanh is a perennial favorite, so I wanted to let you know that I just ordered his new book: Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day. Even though we have not received the book yet, you can still place a hold on it.
Other Thich Nhat Hanh titles I have ordered this year:
Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society
Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm
Have a Happy New Year!
Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day