Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

How to Be Alone

How to Be Alone is a collection of essays composed by the author of the award-winning novel The Corrections. These pieces, mostly written and published before Jonathan Franzen became a house hold name in 2001 are a varied mixture of concerns, subjects and nagging ruminations that are sutured together by a common thread punctuated by the title’s allusion to the problem of living in our hard-wired, fast-paced, technology-saturated, consumer society. In How to Be Alone’s most talked about essay titled Why Bother?, Franzen asks of us, as though he knows the answer but wants desperately the medium to lament the decline in reading, curiosity, critical thinking and other vital social values and skills, does the social novel have an affective relevance within a culture where it must compete for attention and value with the inane banalities of reality television celebrities, babbling cable news pundits, tabloid sensationalism and a nation of information consumers whose capacity to read beyond headlines or pay close attention for more than a sound byte continues to decline by the power and influence of popular culture, the mass media, television and the internet?

Franzen is an intelligent and engaging novelist who grapples with questions concerning the artist’s role in today’s consumer society and the social meaning and impact of the rapidly eroding borders between private and public life. One of the last essays reflects upon Oprah having selected The Corrections for her book club and the mini controversy that followed. Highly recommended.


How to be alone

This Week in Science History Apr. 29

Here are some highlights from this week in science history. To learn more about these intriguing science topics, just click on the underlined words in blue print to access the library catalog. I hope they pique your interest!

Apr. 27, 1791 American inventor and artist Samuel F. B. Morse was born. Morse is famous for developing the world’s first practical telegraph system. Although the New York Herald eulogized Morse as “perhaps the most illustrious American of his age”, he felt his life was a failure. He was an artist, inventor, and art teacher who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York City and Congress. After he developed the Morse Code and perfected the electric telegraph, he battled with domestic and foreign competitors and lawsuits.

Apr. 28, 1947 anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl led a crew of six on a voyage bound for Polynesia on a balsa-wood raft named the Kon Tiki. Heyerdahl believed that Polynesians could have originated in South American and he wanted to utilize the technology and materials of pre-Columbian times to demonstrate that the voyage across the Pacific Ocean was possible. The Kon Tiki, an old name for the Inca sun god, Viracocha, reached the Tuamotu Islands 101 days later.

Apr. 30, 1665 the Great Plague hit London. Also know as the Black Death from the telling lumps in the victim’s body and the inevitable death, the Plague was carried by fleas which lived as parasites on the Black Rats which infested the city. While the disease had existed in Britain since its appearance in 1348, this time it struck swiftly and spread at a horrifyingly fast rate. It ravaged London throughout the summer of 1665 with 8,000 people dying each week by September. It is estimated that between 75,000 and 100,000 died.

May 1, 1931 the Empire State Building was dedicated by President Herbert Hoover. Located New York City at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street, the Empire State Building had 102 stories and was the first skyscraper higher than 1,250 feet. The building was completed in an unbelievably fast one year and 45 days. It was the world’s tallest skyscraper until 1954.   


The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time



Michigan and the Federal Writers' Program

The American Guide series of books about the then 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii weren’t states at the time) was produced by the Federal Writers Project under the Works Progress Administration during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The travel guides, from Michigan to Missouri and New York to California, cover history, geography and culture of each state. The idea for the project was to employ writers such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever and Richard Wright to compose articles about the states. The set of books have historic value and although older, contain information that is current today. A complete set may be found in the Reference collection and some titles are in the circulating collection of the Central Library in the travel area.

The Michigan volume highlights many of the cities including Kalamazoo: “The two main business streets are exceptionally wide. The downtown area, centered at Main and Burdick Streets, is composed mainly of two- and three-story structures. The one ‘skyscraper,’ a 15-story bank building, looks down on peddlers hawking celery and peanuts—a sight peculiar to Kalamazoo.” Oh for some crisp celery and hot peanuts today! This history continues and may elicit a chuckle from readers but is invaluable information that should be appreciated by today’s readers as well as future readers.



Joanna L

The Bellini Card: a novel

This is the third in a series by an Edgar winning author, and it does not disappoint. The novel begins in  Istanbul in the 1840’s. Yashim, the eunuch detective from the previous novels, is charged by the Ottoman sultan to travel to Venice to find  a missing portrait by the artist Bellini. However, Yashim devises a plan so that  his  friend, the irrepressible Polish ambassador  Pawleski, goes instead. Disguised as a rich American art connoisseur, Pawleski  finds his life in danger as he attempts to untangle the web surrounding the portrait. Wonderfully evocative, Venice in the mid 1800’s  comes to life, along with the richly drawn characters. The first two novels, “The Janissary Tree”  and  “The Snake Stone,” are also well worth reading.


The Bellini Card: a novel

Behind the Books

You may never have heard of Barney Rosset but his mark on 20th century literature is an indelible one in large part because of his courageous stand against the censorship of books and his unwavering championing of the works of some of literature’s most important writers. Rosset is best known for his owning and operating of Grove Press, an important publisher during the 1950’s and 60’s of some of literature’s greatest avant garde pioneers, including the work of Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, and Kenzaburo Oe. In 1957 Rosset launched the influential magazine Evergreen Review which brought to the attention of readers those involved with the Beat Movement (Jack Kerouac, Hubert Selby Jr., Allen Ginsberg e.g.) and the emerging counterculture of the 1960’s. Aware of the importance of literature as a galvanizing force to bring about new ideas and creative experimentation by way of the First Amendment, Rosset famously fought several cases of censorship (notably the work of Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence) during his time as publisher. Rosset was recently recognized for his work as a leader in publishing by the National Book Foundation and appeared as the subject of a recent NPR piece discussing his long career.


Last Exit to Brooklyn

Holocaust Remembrance: A Trio of Books

Tuesday, April 19 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. The period of World War II has always interested me. I didn’t experience it, but I can read nonfiction works by and about people who did, or I can read novels that introduce me to new situations, people and emotions, all helping me understand, even a little, what it must have been like.

In the last year, I read a handful of books set during the Holocaust. I shared them with friends who enjoy good writing; these friends shared the titles with other friends. Now I’d like to offer three of them to you.

Suite Francaise
About the author Irene Nemirovosky, a New York Times reviewer said, “She wrote what may be the first work of fiction about what we now call World War II. She also wrote, for all to read at last, some of the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced.”

This is a book that almost wasn’t published. Irene Nemirovsky was a Ukrainian Jew who had lived in France since 1919. She was arrested on July 13, 1942 by French policemen enforcing German race laws. Her crime was being a “stateless person of Jewish descent.” She was taken to Auschwitz where she died. Her husband Michael Epstein worked for her release from prison, but was shortly sent to Auschwitz where he died, too. Their daughter Denise was hidden and survived, along with a manuscript that she did not so much as read until the late 1990s.

Published in 2007, Suite Francaise features two novellas along with biographical information, including some correspondence by Michael Epstein as he sought information on his wife's whereabouts. It also includes Nemirovsky's plans for two other novellas which never were written.

What is chilling about this book is that so much of what Nemirovsky wrote must have been from first-hand observation. “Storm in June” recounts the experiences of a few people fleeing Paris as the Germans invade. She captures a full range of human responses — how, really, might you and your neighbors react to such circumstances? Sometimes it's not pretty. “Dolce” tells about the uneasy adjustments taking place in a small village under German control.

Knowing what happened to the author and her husband makes them all the more compelling.

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel
The fairy tale of a brother and sister lost in the forest is re-told with Poland as the backdrop. It’s near the end of the War. A Jewish brother and sister, renamed Hansel and Gretel by their parents, are hastily dropped off in a dense forest as their parents are being chased by the Nazis. The children wander around and happen upon the hut of an old woman (“the witch” she is called by the villagers). Magda takes them in, but is she a good witch, or a bad witch? I won’t divulge any more because I hope you’ll read it for yourself. As with all fairy tales, this story contains moments of beauty and horror.

The Book Thief
Australian Markus Zusak has written a highly imaginative story about a little girl growing up in Germany during the war. The book’s title refers to a nickname given to Liesel by her foster father. Though illiterate at the beginning of the story, Liesel is fascinated with books and her father teaches her to read. Liesel finds comfort in her books and gives comfort to the townspeople as she reads to them in a bomb shelter. She also gives comfort to Max, a young Jewish man her foster parents are protecting, with whom she forms a deep friendship. Zusak’s vivid writing shows the best and worst of humans, but this book really is heartwarming. It’s a sweet portrait of a little girl who keeps moving forward as everything around her falls apart.

 Suite Francaise

Let's Take a Trip

Lately, I seem to discover poetry and other commentaries about literature and/or books and how important each is to us. The April 2009 issue of Bookbird, a magazine published by the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) folks, contains a short poem by J. Patrick Lewis, a poet from Westerville OH. Here it is:

    Books are thieves of hours.
They kidnap the mind;
The body is left behind.
But books are always
Caught read-handed
And released
After serving many
Arresting sentences.

What a tribute to books! And, to literature. Imagine yourself on a journey, taken vicariously through a favorite book. See yourself caught up in the moment, and forgetting such everyday things as eating and showering. See yourself in a far-away place, returning home after a glorious journey that would not have been possible without the trip taken with a book!

The Library has many books by J. Patrick Lewis, including The Bookworm’s Feast: a Potluck of Poems and Please Bury Me in the Library. These may be found in the Children’s collection, along with Mr. Lewis’ other titles.

Drop by soon and enjoy your feast or journey with these and other delectable choices from the poetry collections in Children’sTeen, and Adult areas.


The Bookworm's Feast: a Potluck of Poems

Cutting for Stone

Every once in a while, you find a book with the power to transport you to another place and time.  Cutting for Stone is just such a book. 

The characters are fully developed and fascinating.  The plot is full of human joy, as well as grief and suffering.  The time frame covers a period of more than 30 years, allowing the reader to see the characters as they grow and change and confront the confluences of historical upheavels and  their own personal destiny.

The author, Abraham Verghese is a doctor, and the plot of this book revolves around an English doctor in Ethiopia, who becomes the father of twin boys who grow up to become doctors. It’s the story of their birth, his rejection of them, and the lives they all weave separately, and eventually intersect,  that captures you from the first paragraph.

 As someone who prefers a good nonfiction book, I have to admit that this fiction account is so well written and developed that it goes on my list of all-time favorite reads.  You will not be disappointed.



Cutting for Stone




I’m determined to have a healthy, abundant garden this year, and due to my two beagles running around the yard, I want to leave chemicals out of the equation.  Trying to learn all the secrets of organic gardening at first seemed overwhelming to me, but I decided to start slowly and explore topics one at a time.  Composting was the first organic gardening topic on my list.  The aptly named Compost by Clare Foster is a simple beginner’s guide to understanding the compost pile.  The book gives a brief description of the science behind decomposition and then delves into all the materials suitable for the process.  Foster details various techniques for achieving the best, least-smelly compost pile possible, and does so in a clear, concise manner perfect for a beginner.  I’m confident my garden will benefit from this book, not to mention the fact that I look forward to making fewer trips to the garbage can!


Caitlin H.

This Week in Science History Apr. 21

Here are some highlights from this week in science history. To learn more about these intriguing science topics, just click on the underlined words in blue print to access the library catalog. I hope they pique your interest!

Apr. 20, 1928 British astronomer Gerald Hawkins was born. Hawkins was an established astronomer at Boston University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory who determined that Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in Southern England was a sophisticated ancient astronomical computer. Although others had speculated on the importance of Stonehenge, Hawkins performed an intense study which he published in the journal Nature in 1963. He found astronomical alignments among 165 points of Stonehenge purely associated with the sun and moon. He used a computer to show that a pattern of alignments with twelve major lunar and solar events existed. Whether you consider Stonehenge an ancient observatory, astronomical calendar or calculator, the construction of it was an impressive engineering feat and it is shrouded in mystery!

Apr. 21, 1902 Marie and Pierre Curie successfully isolated one gram of radioactive radium in the laboratory in Paris. Marie and Pierre shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics with French scientist A. Henri Becquerel for their groundbreaking investigations in radioactivity. Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. The scientific partnership of Marie and Pierre achieved world renown and Marie would go on to win a second Nobel Prize. More about Marie at a later date she is a science topic all her own!

Apr. 22, 1970 the first Earth Day was celebrated in the U.S. to encourage environmental awareness and responsibility. Its mission is to safeguard the nation’s water, air and soil from pollution. The global theme for Earth Day 2009 is “The Green Generation”. The first Earth Day in 1970 is considered by many to be the birth of the modern environmental movement.


Earth Day

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