RSS Feed

Staff Picks: Books

Do Not Sell At Any Price

As any collector of ephemeral objects knows, there comes a point when what started out as mere passing interest becomes a crippling, overwhelming obsession. While I've collected music on LPs, 45s, cassettes and CDs for over 30 years, and I know the feeling that comes with tracking down that ultra-rare copy of some long-forgotten record by some obscure band whose name has been lost to the mists of time, after reading Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78 RPM Records by Amanda Petrusich I'm thinking my collecting issues have nothing on the hyper-competitive, desperate individuals who collect 78 RPM records from the beginning of the recorded music era. While anybody can walk into a used record store and find an LP or CD from a relatively obscure artist, the challenges of the 78 collector are exponentially greater: Many of the rarest 78s were pressed in extremely limited quantities to begin with, and most of the master recordings were destroyed or recycled, leaving only the brittle, delicate, and increasingly rare (and expensive)78 discs themselves as the only evidence of much of recorded music from the turn of the 20th century. Petrusich starts her descent into collecting madness innocently enough when she interviews a 78 collector for a Spin magazine on the resurgence of vinyl records, and quickly discovers just how far removed from typical collecting the 78 market is. After listening to some rare recordings, she's bitten by the 78 bug. What follows is part history lesson and part travelogue, as Petrusich visits flea markets, barns, libraries, and record stores; interviews other obsessed and wary collectors; and even learns to scuba dive in order to search for exceedingly rare 78's rumored to have been thrown into the Milwaukee River when the manufacturing plant closed down. Along the way, what emerges is an amazing and often moving true story about the perils and pitfalls of collecting, a fascinating look at some of the most obscure and beautiful music ever recorded and the obsessive attempts to preserve those few remaining copies by any means necessary. Do Not Sell at Any Price is an astonishing look at one of the near-forgotten parts of American cultural history and worth your own obsessive examination.

Dangerously Funny

If you’re interested in cultural history, especially TV history, you’ve probably already read David Bianculli’s Dangerously Funny. Bianculli is widely known as a television critic at NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. This is the story of Tom and Dick Smothers, their associates, and how they created a hit with topical, edgy comedy and plus music that upset network censors and how, despite the program’s popularity, CBS dropped the program. 

Tom Smothers immediately booked The Who after hearing them at the Monterey Pop Festival, their American debut. Their performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, in which Keith Moon packed his kick drum with a bit too much explosive, is legendary. The Comedy Hour bridged the generation gap by providing a fresh venue for seasoned performers like Jack Paar and many others to create a program that was entertaining and accessible to multiple generations at a volatile time. That explosive episode with The Who also featured Mickey Rooney and Bette Davis.

Arguably the greatest achievement of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was bringing Pete Seeger back to network television after having been blacklisted for more than a decade. When the last verse of the song was cut by network censors because of its pointed criticism of President Johnson, the controversy around the cut led to a repeat appearance by Seeger in which he performed the entire song. Even though the program was taken off the air before I was born, I think this is a fascinating story about media and power that still resonates today. 

Yes Please

Others may have blogged about this book when it was first published last year, so I might well be late to the party, so to speak. However, it is a perfect example of the right book at the right time.

I had just finished reading two serious World War II novels and two sobering nonfiction books; I needed something light. I’m generally not a fan of celebrity memoirs, but Yes Please by Amy Poehler was a welcome contrast to those serious fiction and nonfiction books.

Poehler’s writing style is similar to Nora Ephron’s. She is funny, witty, and provides a good mix of personal and SNL back stories. This is part memoir, part real life advice, part just fun.

From Orphan to Dancer!

This is truly a feel-good story. It all started when Michaela was living at an orphanage in Sierra Leone with her best friend Mia. Of course, life was not easy on the orphanage, especially for Michaela. She missed her parents and she had a condition called “vitiligo”, which she got teased for. One day the wind blew a dream in to her. It was a picture of a ballerina. What Michaela liked most about the picture was how happy and beautiful the dancer looked in her pink tutu. To be happy like the dancer was something she wanted for herself and it became a dream that she held unto. The orphan children had to escape Sierra Leone. It was a long and dangerous walk to West Africa. But, Papa Andrew led the children to a better place and he found families for some of them. Mia and Michaela were adopted by Elaine DePrince. Elaine made sure that Michaela would have the lessons and life that she needed to make her Ballerina Dreams come true.

This book was written by Michaela and Elaine DePrince. I admire them so much. Michaela for a beauty inside and out that allowed her to pursue her dream and Elaine for continuing to go to West Africa to adopt girls. This makes me wonder what other dreams has she made come true. What amazing people!

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.

One Plastic Bag

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of Gambia is the story of one person making a difference.

In the village of Njau in Gambia, a young woman named Isatou notices discarded plastic bags littering roads and pathways. Her first impression is that the many plastic bags make a rainbow of beautiful colors.

A few years later, an older and wiser Isatou listens as farmers and butchers relate to her that goats in the village are ingesting the bags which then become twisted around their intestines leading to death. The bags’ ultimate ugliness becomes clear. The massed piles of bags turn into mountains of permanent garbage that attract pests, hurt livestock and cause disease.

She, along with several women friends, devise a plan to wash and dry the bags, cut them into strips and roll these into spools of plastic thread. They then teach themselves to crochet with the thread. The end products are colorful purses that are a hit among the women in the village.

With the money earned from the sale of the recycled bag purses, Isatou and her friends envision a cleaner and more beautiful village. Building upon her success with the plastic bags, Isatou and a Peace Corps volunteer begin the Njau Recycling and Income Generating group.

This inspirational, true story is retold by Miranda Paul, an avid recycler herself. She traveled to Gambia as a volunteer teacher, fair-trade promoter and literacy advocate who met Isatou and learned of her work to better her community, it’s people and their animals by cleaning up the environment.

The accompanying striking illustrations were created by Elizabeth Zunon, who grew up in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. She used multihued paper as well as leftover shopping bags to create evocative collages that make the perfect complement to this story.


Probably the first Ph.D. dissertation produced in graphic novel form, Unflattening examines the relationship between words and images and the way that Western society tends to devalue images at the expense of words. Author Nick Sousanis cleverly uses comics as a medium for discussing why comics themselves are a revolutionary philosophical concept and a serious challenge to the "flat" way of thinking. Using beautiful, sometimes disorienting artwork and thoughtful language, Unflattening is a fascinating and challenging work of art and science.

The Wright Brothers

Once again, Pulitzer Prize winning author David McCullough has written a very readable history, this time telling the behind-the-scenes story of Wilbur and Orville Wright in his new book, The Wright Brothers.

Most of us know the basic story of the brothers….they owned and operated a bicycle shop by day and taught themselves the theory of flight by night. Their trials and errors, the close family relationships, their time in France which propelled them to international fame, and their patent battles in the US courts are less well known and make for compelling reading.

It is interesting to realize how far aviation has come in just about 100 years…from Kitty Hawk to the moon. As with other books from McCullough, this one also shares the story of the individuals behind important times in our history.


The Cowboy Way

Cole has missed almost four weeks of school. This news shocks his mother and leads her to a hasty road trip out of Detroit to take Cole to his father. Cole has never met his father, nor has he ever met a horse and cowboys. From the book jacket - “Inspired by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Ghetto Cowboy is a timeless urban western about learning to stand up for what’s right – the Cowboy Way.”

G. Neri writes with an honest style that will grip readers from the start. I read this aloud with my 7th grader and we both felt just as compelled to follow Cole’s journey to the end of the book. The ties that bind family together are universal, and believing in something or someone helps us all grow. 

Take a look at this and all of Greg Neri’s work. Then meet the author on Thursday, October 1 at 5:00 pm at the Powell Branch Library.

Voice of Freedom Fannie Lou Hamer

 Fannie Lou Hamer has been called “the spirit of the Civil Rights movement” and this oversize book uses her perspective to tell the story of a lifetime of freedom-fighting.  Voice of Freedom Fannie Lou Hamer uses poems, songs, and collage illustrations that were inspired by Hamer’s work for civil rights throughout her remarkable life.