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Staff Picks: Books

Being Mortal

 “You don’t need to sacrifice your autonomy just because you need help in your life.”

This is one of the many pearls of wisdom I took from Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a book I’ve been hearing about from others for several months now. Whether facing one’s own sickness, old age, and/or frailty, or caring for someone else’s, this volume poses important questions we might all ask. Gawande, a physician who cites examples from both his professional and personal experience, looks at the truths of human nature that can make the caregiving process—and possible end-of-life realities—less cause for fear and anxiety than it often is.   

More questions/concerns to ponder:
• What makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? (p. 92)
• Human beings have a need for both privacy and community, for flexible daily rhythms and patterns, and for the possibility of forming caring relationships with those around them. (p. 131)

And finally:
• A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives. (p. 282)


Islamic Reformation

For people who respect all world religions, including Islam, this book will be hard to read. Indeed it was for me. It tells the tale of heartbreaking atrocities done in the name of religion, but then goes on to say, as a more generalized theoretical argument, that Islam itself has major problems, that the religion of Islam is violent, that it needs a Reformation like Christianity had. The author, raised in Somalia as a Muslim, has a brutal and oppressive childhood story. Running away to the Netherlands, she divorced her native religion and embraced Western culture and ideas. From there, Dutch Parliament, fellow at Harvard, bestselling author, 100 most influential people in the world according to Time. She has a voice. Here, she calls for a complete Reformation of Islam. And she means it: Stop taking the Koran so seriously, stop taking Muhammed so seriously, stop taking the afterlife so seriously, and forget about Sharia and Jihad. Those are her main suggestions.

If you read this book, I would also suggest comparing it with the thought of Reza Aslan, who has a much more nuanced and complex view regarding Islam, violence, and socio-political considerations. Islam, after all, has over a billion converts all over the world. Therefore, to make any sweeping generalizations about it is virtually impossible. The Islam of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is not the Islam of India, or America, or Turkey.


Making Everyday Electronics Work

Making Everyday Electronics Work is a do-it-yourself introductory guide to fixing and maintaining all things electronic. The strength of the book isn't only in getting information on how to fix specific kinds of gadgets. In fact, the title obscures the book's great strength: providing an overview of how electricity works. Instead of a cookbook reference to fixing a handful of electrical systems, here's an explanation of how electrical systems work from generation to consumption. We get a welcome explanation of all of those power line components that take electricity from the power plant to your toaster. As advertised, however, there are entire sections on tools and tests for understanding wireless devices, electronics in your vehicle and much more. It's not a big book and it's not exhaustive, but Making Everyday Electronics Work answers lots of big questions and provides a great introduction to deeper exploration.


Rescue Cat Rescues Boy

 When Fraser Met Billy is an engaging true account written by Louise Booth, the mother of two kids; Fraser and Pippa.

 

When Fraser was just several months old, Louise was aware that her son was not completely normal. Her intuitions are confirmed when at 18 months, Fraser is diagnosed with autism. Besides this, he also has hypotonia, a rare muscular disorder that makes his joints loose.

 

At an early age, Fraser finds it difficult to communicate, often has tantrums, emotional meltdowns and easily withdraws into his own private world. Depending on the circumstances with which he is confronted, his behavior is unpredictable and volatile. Fraser begins speech and behavioral treatment, but his therapists soon come to the conclusion that Fraser will never attend a normal, mainstream school. This is devastating news to Louise and her husband Chris.

 

Prior to this crisis, the Booth family had always loved cats. In fact, they share their space with an aging cat named Toby, who is mostly preoccupied with sleeping and eating. Louise starts wondering if a much younger pet would prove to be a positive influence on Fraser; a “special” friend of sorts that her son could interact with and bond.

 

Shortly thereafter, the parents contact the Cat Protection League. A caregiver there senses that one of two identical cats, Billy or Bear, found together earlier in an abandoned house, might make a good fit for Fraser.

 

Prior to meeting the cats, Fraser studies their photos and keeps these by his bed. Unlike most adults, he is right away able to distinguish between the two. When Fraser and his parents meet the cats at the rescue, he instantly latches onto Billy. Upon arriving home, he declares that “Billy is going to be Fraser’s very best friend”, a statement that truly predicted their present and future relationship in more ways than one.

 

The two become inseparable and this rescue cat transforms Fraser’s life. As Louise puts it “Billy had the ability to enter Fraser’s own, private universe, a place that none of us could penetrate. It had made that universe a less lonely place for Fraser but not only that; it had encouraged him to venture out of it so that he was more and more part of our world”.

 

As time goes by, Fraser is able to enroll into a mainstream school and is currently doing remarkably well.

 

I found this book difficult to put down. I read it in two sittings and love its reaffirmation of the power of the animal/human bond; something that can never be overestimated.


Happy Loving Day

Today marks the 48th anniversary of legal protection for interracial families and their right to marry throughout the nation. The landmark case, Loving V. Virginia (1967) and the story behind it, has recently been transformed into an illustrated children's book called The Case for Loving: the fight for interracial marriage. Sound interesting? Check out the HBO-produced documentary about this significant legal case and its historical importance.


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I might be making a professional faux pas, but I’m going to tell you to judge this book by its cover.  Look at the light and airy design of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—doesn’t it look so calm and beautiful?  I imagine calm and beautiful is what my house will be after I put Marie Kondo’s tidying tips into action.  Marie Kondo is a tidying guru in Japan, but her simple, yet inspiring book was just recently translated to English.  Her secret to keeping a house in order, with no clutter relapses, is to throw everything away--well, at least all the items in your home that don’t “spark joy.”  She has a strategy for attacking clutter in a particular order and then explains how to store possessions that are kept.  It’s a fast read and has inspired me to start sorting through my stuff.


First Ladies

One of my fields of study in addition to librarianship has been political science, so it naturally follows that I would be an eager viewer of C-SPAN. In fact, I have been known to watch Senate hearings at 3:30 a.m. The program on which this 2015 book is based, though, comes on at the more reasonable time of 8:00 p.m. on Sunday evenings. Susan Swain, the moderator of C-SPAN's series on first ladies of the United States, is in my opinion one of the finest interviewers on TV. In this book she has compiled material from the series that originally ran in 2013 and 2014 and is now being replayed. The result of her efforts is, under one cover, an absolute treasure of information and little-known facts about the presidents' spouses, and by extension, the presidents themselves, their families, and events concurrent with their time in the White House.


A graphic novel telling the true life story about Nat Love

A publisher friend asked Nat Love to write his story. He lived an interesting life at an important time in American history. He was born a slave but was fortunate enough to be on a plantation where he was treated kindly. It was well after the war when his family found out they were free but, farm life was tough and they all had to pull together to make a living. Everyone had to do their part. That’s when Nat started wrangling. He became a cowpuncher, learned to shoot and became a real cowboy. 

 
This was easy reading and the graphic novel version was an interesting way to tell a true story. I enjoyed it.

 

 


The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook

Full disclosure, I am far from a vegetarian. But I do like good food, have passing interest in eating healthier, and I’m a big fan of everything that America’s Test Kitchen does, so when I saw that America’s Test Kitchen had released a new cookbook, The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook: a fresh guide to eating well with 700 foolproof recipes, I put my bias for animal products to the side and checked it out. There are recipes here to suit any mood, time, or flavor interest, and having them vetted by the impossibly thorough cooks at ATK means that you can basically turn to any random page and find something great. What I truly love about this cookbook is the “why this recipe works” section that is included with each recipe and offers the home cook some pointers about technique, ingredient selection, or intangible things that the ATK testers discovered are helpful in executing the recipe as designed. I’ve only made one of the recipes so far, a curry lentil soup, but I’m happy to report that it was easy to follow, the tips offered made total sense, and the soup itself was delicious.


Why Women are Better than Men

Oxytocin, a bizarre unsuspecting hormone expressed during sex and breast feeding, has been heavily linked to empathy, trust and - in a word - being a good person.

Okay. So what. Well, here's the problem. Women have it. Men don't (generally speaking). This explains why women tend to be less violent, more giving, and more empathic than men. Sorry, men, we simply cannot ignore these statistics.

Of course there is much more to the story than that. But this book, which absolutely blew my mind, tries to explain how and why oxytocin forms the building blocks of morality. For me, a student of religion, philosophy, and the intersection between them and science, this argument was fascinating. I highly recommend this book. This is one of those books that I will never forget