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Staff Picks: Books

The art of personality

The example of Andy Warhol is often cited as proof that personality and persona can be just as important as the quality of the work itself when it comes to conceptual art and the vacillations of the “art market”. Warhol himself was quoted as saying “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.” This concept of the artists themselves being intertwined and integral to the art they produce is at the core of Sarah Thornton’s (Seven Days in the Art World) book 33 Artists in 3 Acts. The book is composed of short chapters that each focus on individual living artists. Many of the artists, or perhaps their work, like Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, and Damien Hirst will be familiar to even those totally unfamiliar with the modern art world, but all of the featured artist offer unique perspective on what it means to be an artist and offer readers a glimpse into a fascinating world. Some of my favorite sections revolve around the Simmons Dunham family, both parents are artists who have been a part of the New York art scene for decades, but over the course of the years that the interviews in this book take place their daughter Lena Dunham goes from recent college graduate to inking a deal with HBO to create the show Girls and then on to cultural icon status well surpassing the public fame and recognition of both her parents combined by the end of the book. The family dynamics were interesting enough with two artist parents! Thornton, who has written about contemporary art for years in the Economist, is trained as a sociologist and this dimension of her background lends an intriguing tone to this really entertaining read.

The Series Series: Saga

I feel a little late to this party, since the first volume of this series came out in 2013 and it has been recommended to me countless times since then. This month, I happened to see that all three of the volumes were on the shelf, so I picked them up. I loved them so much that I finished all three volumes over a weekend and have since started recommending countless times to other people. The series follows a young couple who were soldiers from opposite sides of an inter-galactic war. In the first pages of the book, their daughter is born. The existence of their new family is very politically inconvenient for both sides of the war, and the series shows the beginning of what is hinted at a lifetime of trying to find a small bit of peace for a world constantly at war.

What I liked best about this series was the portrayal of a young couple in love, but instead of the story focusing on how they fall in love, it is about how they work together to protect their family. It also features a great cast of well-written supporting characters, each one with a complex hopes, dreams, and fears. As a graphic novel, the artwork adds an extra level of enjoyment.

New Shoes

I think of shoes by season and in particular new shoes for Fall. In my family, my sister and I, would always get new shoes for the start of school. We did it all through my school years and we did it again when my daughter went to school. And yes, even throughout her college years. I still think of the beginning of September as shoe shopping time. When I read New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer, it brought back those memories but instead of feeling my happiness it brought a sadness for the girls in the story.

In the 1950’s Ella Mae is getting new shoes, not hand-me down shoes from her cousin. On Saturday, Ella Mae and her Mom go to the shoe store but they have to wait for the little white girl to select and try on her shoes first even though Ella Mae was there before the white family. Ella Mae knows colored people always have to wait.

When it is finally her turn, she tells Mr. Johnson that she wants to try on a pair of saddle shoes. Mama sucks in her breath and tells Ella Mae that they’ll do something different. Instead Mr. Johnson points to the back where the paper and pencils are kept. Mama and Ella Mae draw a picture of her feet and Mr. Johnson brings back a shoe box. No trying on in the store is allowed for them. They purchase the shoes but on the way home Ella Mae realizes colored folks can’t try on their shoes and how unfair it is for them. Even though she has new shoes now, she feels bad. When Ella Mae tells her best friend Charlotte what happened, she said it happened to her too. Sometimes the shoes don’t fit and they hurt the children’s feet.

Ella Mae has an idea and Charlotte is eager to help. They both do chores and for pay they take 1 nickel and a pair of outgrown shoes. After a month, they line up the shoes. They get polish, they clean and shine the shoes. They wash the laces and the shoes are almost as good as new. “Ella Mae and Charlotte’s Shoes” opens for business – price 10 cents and another pair of used shoes. The neighbors line up and their children actually get to try on shoes. They are both proud – anyone who walks in their shoe store can try on all the shoes they want!

The author’s note at the end of the book describes Ella Mae as a fictional character but the discrimination that she faced was very real. Charming characters with a compelling experience compliment Eric Velasquez’s beautiful paintings. This is a story worth sharing and discussing.

Wicked Charms: A Lizzy and Diesel Novel

Wicked Charms is such a perfect summer read and in fact I spent several hours outside on my porch swing enjoying this light, fluffy read. Although it is in a series that Janet Evanovich and Phoef Sutton co-write about Lizzy and Diesel it can certainly be a stand-alone book.

Lizzy and Diesel are back in an adventure that has them searching for a famous pirate’s treasure along the New England coastline. There’s gold and silver coins, precious gems and the Stone of Avarice to hunt for. But of course they aren’t the only ones searching for the goodies.

Diesel and Lizzy both have enhanced abilities, special powers, and they are “called” on occasion to help save the world. They have been working together to locate seven ancient stones that hold the powers of the seven deadly sins. The stones are known as the seven SALIGIA stones. Lizzy and Diesel have to make sure the stones don’t fall into the wrong hands but of course there is lots of drama, adventure and a mixture of comical mayhem as the search goes forward. In the end Lizzy and Diesel accomplish their mission and save the Stone of Avarice. All is well until they get the next call.

If you enjoy Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series you will have fun with this one as well. There are a few warm beach days left – happy reading!

The War that Saved My Life

Well written with a captivating story, The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a new favorite of mine. Set in England during World War II, the story is told from 10 year old, Ada's perspective. She and her brother, Jaime escape their abusive mother when London's children are evacuated to the country. They find healing and hope in their new surroundings and it's just completely inspiring. I bet you'll love it too! 

Let Your Geek Flag Fly!

I have no problem admitting my love for all things considered “geek” – fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, role-playing, board and video games. Many of these loves I have passed down to my two daughters. Unfortunately the “geek” world can be dismissive and dangerously cruel to females (see Gamergate). This is incredibly surprising to me because many of these “outsider” passions celebrate diversity and possibilities. Author Felicia Day, in her memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), painfully describes her experience with Gamergate backlash and the meanness that followed her for months. This all happened at the height of the success earned from the web show The Guild and caused her to fall into a deep depression. Fortunately, Day was able to crawl her way out of this funk to go on to start Geek & Sundry, a network of web shows that celebrate pop culture and geekdom. Readers will also discover how a home-schooled (not for Bible thumping reasons), violin prodigy became one of the most successful and powerful women on the Internet. My hope is that my daughters will someday recognize Felicia Day as the trailblazer that helped them raise their own geek flags.


Rising Strong

Self-described researcher-storyteller Brené Brown is well known for her research and writing on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most viewed. Several of her books, including The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead are bestsellers. Her fourth book, Rising Strong, published earlier this week, deals with what happens when we exercise courage and fail. Resilience is a hot topic right now, and Brown's new book is definitely worth checking out.


Little Black Lies

I admit to not knowing much about the Falkland Islands, the setting for the novel Little Black Lies. But the Falklands are a strong presence in this suspenseful story by S.J. Bolton, and I certainly feel as though I have a stronger sense now of the islands.

In the story, three children have gone missing in this wild and beautiful place, over a period of several years. Most of the islanders feel that accidents claimed the children- perhaps a fall, or swept away by a strong tide. As events unfold and the main characters and motives are revealed, it becomes apparent that certainly not all of the disappearances can be explained away by accidents.

Strong characters, a fast paced story, and a fascinating setting make Little Black Lies a winner. It was recommended to me by a co-worker, who said he feels it’s one of the best books he’s read all year, and I agree.

The Fire Next Time

I recently read The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates in preparation for his visit to Kalamazoo in November. Coates has garnered much praise for his latest book, Between the World and Me, a book written as a letter to his son that explores the racial history of the U.S. and its impact on black lives today. Coates’ work has me reminiscing about one of my favorite books, another book about being black in America: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

The Fire Next Time is a letter written to Baldwin’s nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the book, Baldwin discusses growing up in Harlem and his experiences with racial injustice. I read the book when I was about twenty years old, and it moved me in a way I can’t describe; it was a matter of reading the right book at the right time—my ears and heart were open to really listening to what Baldwin had to say. It was one of my first realizations as a white person that my experience of life in the U.S. was vastly different from black Americans. It pains me to think that this book is as pertinent as ever, and that racial injustice is legacy we Americans are left to handle. The Fire Next Time galvanized my deep respect for Baldwin and his writing and made him a forever favorite of mine.

Daughters of the dragon : a comfort woman's story

If you liked The kite runner and Memoirs of a geisha, you may be interested in Daughters of the dragon by William Andrews. This historical fiction book set in 20th century Korea follows the life of a fictional Korean "comfort woman," Jae-hee. During World War II, thousands of young women in occupied territories were forced to be comfort women (sex slaves) for the Imperial Japanese Army. Jae-hee and her sister were two of them, ripped from their happy family farm in 1943. The book details Jae-hee's escape and attempt to return to a normal life while keeping her secret.

This book unveils a dark side of history that is not well-known, but deserves to be told.