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Staff Picks: Books

Autumn

Autumn is one of four seasons--portions of the year which are distinguished from each other by particular characteristics of daylight, temperature, and weather. In autumn, the whole world seems to be preparing for restor death. The days grow shorter, the temperature cools, and plants and animals prepare for the cold months of winter. Wild animals migrate to warmer places or take on calories and build warm shelters, deciduous trees drop their leaves to conserve energy, and humans, who in this country call autumn “fall,” get out their warm clothes, turn on the furnace, and rake the fallen leaves from their yards.

Autumn is also a book by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, and the above paragraph is a feeble attempt to imitate his writing style. Autumn is a collection of short essays on a curious variety of topics: apples, plastic bags, infants, fever, lice, churches, dawn, and chimneys, to name a few. Most of the pieces consider natural and man-made things or physical experiences, but a few discuss more abstract concepts like loneliness and forgiveness or the works of particular writers or artists.

These pieces are presented as Knausgaard’s introduction to the world for his unborn daughter, and according to the book jacket, it is "the first of four volumes marveling at the vast, unknowable universe around us." Each piece describes its topic in precise details which I, for one, rarely ever think about. Some of Knausgaard’s observations are quite frank and disturbingly graphic, yet each piece eventually moves beyond concrete facts to the strange ways we relate to the thing being considered. For example, Knausgaard concludes an essay called "Vomit" (of which I confess I skimmed the beginning description) with a memory of a time when one of his children vomited, like this:

"… but it was neither disgusting or uncomfortable, on the contrary I found it refreshing. The reason was simple: I loved her, and the force of that love allows nothing to stand in its way, neither the ugly, nor the unpleasant, nor the disgusting, nor the horrific."

With his keen attention and the connections he makes between the mundane and the deeply personal, Knausgaard shows the very familiar things that make up daily life in a fresh and vivid light, in the same way that the world can look brand new just after an autumn rain.


More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers

Novelist Jonathan Lethem’s new book of short essays, reviews, introductions, and a hilarious, imagined interview between the filmmaker Spike Jonze and one of Lethem’s fictional characters, More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers will appeal to those who enjoy Lethem’s spirited, polygonal criticism and literary ephemera. Lethem’s enthusiasm for delving into the essence of the books and writers that have moved him over the years is infectious from the first essay onward and will inspire readers to seek out the authors and books discussed. His reflexive, stylistic musings, collected over the course of a decade, engage with both the canon (Kafka, Melville, Dickens) and the lesser known (Steven Millhauser, Vivian Gornick, Thomas Berger), the long ago, dead authors (Bernard Malamud and Philip K. Dick) and those still working and alive (Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Kazuo Ishiguro).


Binti

I love science fiction. I love the sleek spaceships and visiting other worlds.  I love  imagining how current trends may impact future society. But the stories being told in this genre are so limited.  Think of the last science fiction movie you saw, or saw advertised. Who was the main character? Was it a man? Did he have blue eyes? Was his name Chris? Yeah, I thought so. Why is it that when we get the chance to travel off planet, we’re always stuck with the same guy who can only classify aliens into two categories: the ones who look like supermodels in tight spandex, and the ones who don’t?  

 

There are so many aspects of space travel that have yet to be explored, and stories that can only be explored by people who aren’t Chris. That is why Binti by Nnedi Okorafor is so refreshing.  Binti is the story of a girl from the Himba tribe in northern Namibia. She sneaks off in the night to catch a ride on the spaceship heading off to Oomza University, where she’s been accepted to complete her studies. Her plans are violently interrupted when aliens board and attack the ship.

 

Coming in at a succinct 97 pages, this story is gripping and fast paced. It is the mark of a master to guide the reader from point A to point B with no excess frills, or empty exposition. To pull that off in science fiction, a genre known for elaborate world building and description is incredible. Winner of the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and finalists for many others, this is one space adventure you do not want to miss.

 


Another Masterpiece by Coates

I would say Ta-Nehisi Coates is a reincarnation of James Baldwin, and no doubt he would take it as a compliment, but I think it does a disservice to his unique brilliance at writing. He doesn't write to simply inform. As he says, he wants to leave the reader haunted by his words. Indeed. He is arguably the greatest African American writer to ever live and - with comics and screenplays coming - he's very much in his prime. And I only say "African American writer" because he chooses to write about race - that's his beat and he does it so powerfully well.

The title - We Were Eight Year in Power - has a double meaning. After the Civil War, in the South, for a brief period of eight years, American was able to witness "negro government" for the first time. And it was good - schools were built, institutions established, jails were built, education provided, ferries rebuilt. White supremacy put an end to that, reconstruction failed in the South, and Du Bois knew why: "If there was one thing that South Carolina feared more that bad Negro government, it was good Negro government." With the election of Donald Trump, the parallels are obvious.

Although most of the book contains essays you may have read in the Atlantic (e.g. "The Case for Reparations"), the book is well worth it. Before each easy, Ta-Nehisi offers great commentary about his life at the time and what he thought of the piece and how it relates to today.

In regards to his writing style, two things leap off the page. For him, the history of racism is extremely physical and violent. No euphemisms here. Second, his atheism influences his thought and writing tremendously. "Nobody will save us." The story is constant struggle and valiant suffering. People call him overly pessimistic; I would say he looks at history bravely and fiercely.


The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, Literary Treasures

I find it hard to believe that it has been 26 years since the Kalamazoo Public Library gave up its card catalog in favor of an online catalog. This means that a fairly large segment of the population has no memory of this iconic entity. As do a few others on the staff here at the library, I remember well the days of walking to the card catalog from the desk to determine whether we owned a certain book or not. While I would never want to return to this method of library service, I did enjoy looking at this 2017 book produced by the Library of Congress. In it are five chapters: 1) Origins of the Card Catalog, 2) The Enlightened Catalog, 3) Constructing a Catalog, 4) The Nation's Library and Catalog, and 5) The Rise and Fall of the Card Catalog. There are lots of illustrations, not only of the furniture, but also individual cards as well as photographs of original book jackets to go along with the cards depicted. I loved seeing covers of books such as those for To Kill a Mockingbird, The Cat in the Hat, Charlotte's Web, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and many others. This book evokes nostalgia for the past as well as gratitude for the present.


My name is Cynthia

My name is Cynthia : I’m more than special needs is written by Cynthia’s mother Sally Birch, from her daughter’s perspective. The book chronicles Cynthia’s life starting from birth, on to preschool years where some signs of developmental disability began to show, then through school years and the hardships that came with being different --having to ride on a “short bus,” not being allowed to participate in the same activities as other children-- and finally through adulthood. This is an engrossing book by a Kalamazoo author -- a quick read that you won't put down once you start. The epilogue about what life could have been like had Cynthia’s life not been defined by disability, written from combined mom and daughter’s perspective, made me tear up. 


Little Sister

Rose owns an old, red-carpeted repertory cinema, is caring for her mother who is in the early stages of dementia, and suddenly starts inhabiting another woman’s body every time it storms. You know, just your average life stuff for a 30-something woman. Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy, takes place over the course of a few days, when Rose begins having what she thinks are dreams about being a woman named Harriet. Her obsession with Harriet, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her little sister, brings up trauma from her past and forces her to deal with her life in the present. It’s a book about forgiveness, imperfection and hope. Plus, the character development in this novel is fantastic—I feel as if Rose is someone I know, and even the minor characters have layers.


Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

My name is Karen. And I am a word nerd.

It's no surprise, therefore, that this book caught my attention. Not only is it interesting, it's also humorous. Author and blogger Kory Stamper works for Merriam-Webster as a lexicographer. As such, she digs into the world of word origins, usage, and the daily questions she faces due to the ever-changing nature of the English language. If you're like me and you like reading about words, you'll enjoy this book.


Animal Ark

Animal Ark is a beautiful work of photography and poetry. In this National Geographic Kids book, Photo Ark creator Joel Sartore celebrates “our wild world in poetry and pictures” by joining the playful and powerful words of Newbery Medal award winner Kwame Alexander with bright and colorful animal photographs. This new non-fiction picture book is currently available at all KPL locations.


Chatham, Chicago, Segregation, and Gentrification

The content, issues, and stories in this book make it a must read. Unfortunately for me, I just couldn't get into the writing style, the flow, and the speed of the book. Hopefully you have a different experience.

Among the many things brought to light in this book, the Black middle class neighborhood of Chatham looms large. The author, a correspondent for NPR, grew up there. It's important to remember that, while the effects of segregation have been catastrophic for Black families as a whole, there are many different ways of "growing up Black" in America. Chatham is different from Harlem which is different from Baltimore.

If you read this book, then you must read The Color of Law, a more general book about the same issues.