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Staff Picks: Books

The Good Spy

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, is the compelling story of a remarkable CIA operative, perhaps one of the most important in CIA history. Many have said had he lived, he might have been able to heal the rift between the Arab and western worlds.

A geopolitical turning point occurred on April 18, 1983, when a bomb exploded outside of the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including Robert Ames.

Ames had an extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence operatives, an ability that was extremely valuable and sorely missed. Might the situation been different in the mid-east, even today, had he lived? Some think so.

Book reviewers have called this a compelling and complex narrative that can be read on various levels, including the influence a truly good man can have on an agency as cynical at the CIA as well as a glimpse of the region’s political failures and descent into violence. This book is quite readable as it tells the story of a good man working in a not-so-good system in a violent part of the world.


Broken Monsters

Recently I stumbled upon a great list from Paste Magazine, “Required Reading: 30 of the Best Horror Books.” Being a huge fan of the genre, I decided to see which titles I have not yet read and almost immediately discovered Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes. This critically acclaimed book was on a ton of “Best of 2014” lists and I had read that Beukes is quickly becoming a heavy hitter in the genre. The story is perfect for fans of HBO’s True Detective series, dark and creepy with a setting that will evoke goosebumps - modern Detroit. 

This tale told from the perspectives of many different characters, including the “Detroit Monster,” will drag you through the dirty and scary streets of the Motor City. Beukes expertly weaves the recent fascination of the city’s “ruin porn” with a malevolent force trying to piece together humans and animals. Is the city worth saving? Who exactly are the “broken monsters” in the story? The end is not only rich and well-crafted, but also forces you to think even beyond the final page. This book is destined to be a classic and not just in the horror genre.


Last Call: Prohibition in Kalamazoo a Century Ago

On May 1st, 1915 — exactly 100 years ago today, Kalamazoo “went dry,” closing the doors on all of the saloons, bars, clubs and other public drinking establishments throughout the county. During the April 5th election that year, Kalamazoo voters had turned out in strong support of the “local option,” which would make it illegal to sell or manufacture distilled liquor, beer and wine after May 1st.

With little in the way of last-minute fanfare and without a single reported incident of public drunkenness, 65 local establishments cleared their shelves, drained their kegs, and closed their doors in order to meet the midnight, April 30 deadline. This included 39 saloons in the city of Kalamazoo, along with a handful of others in Schoolcraft and Vicksburg, plus the Kalamazoo Brewing Company, the last in Kalamazoo’s long line of pre-Prohibition brewers and distillers.

But Kalamazoo wasn’t the first county in the state to ban liquor sales. Anti-liquor sentiment had been “brewing” in Michigan since before the Civil War. Van Buren County led the way when it went dry in 1907, and by 1911, 39 counties had adopted local ordinances against alcohol. Michigan became the first state in the nation to go “dry” with a statewide ban on liquor sales in 1918, more than a year ahead of the nationwide federal ban on alcohol sales and consumption, the Eighteenth Amendment.

Kalamazoo Telegraph-Press, April 6, 1915

This all came to an end in December 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment and the repeal of Prohibition, but the effects of the prohibition movement lingered for decades. Kalamazoo restaurants were prohibited from selling liquor by the glass until 1964, and the sale of liquor before noon on Sunday was still against the law until 2011.

Now, of course, Kalamazoo has a thriving batch of craft brewers and distillers, and has since earned a solid reputation among beer lovers nationwide. So celebrate... check out The Michigan Beer Film, take a tour of Kalamazoo's beer culture with West Michigan Beer Tours, or earn your degree in sustainable craft brewing from the new KVCC-WMU joint venture. How things have changed. Cheers!


A story of a brilliant young man that went to Yale but couldn’t leave the Hood behind.

This is a sad and much too familiar story. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is about a young who was gifted with a brilliant mind. His mom did what she was could to get him in the right places. He made it into Yale. He got all A’s, but it wasn’t enough. He could not separate himself from the Hood. The Dorm life, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry could not compete with the call of the lifestyle he was raised in. Robert Peace’s life ended tragically. He wanted to live both worlds. He was gunned down while trying to make fast money.

Jeff Hobbs did an excellent job on telling the Robert Peace story.


The Children's Crusade

Despite the fact that I have the opportunity to read early reviews of upcoming fiction books, I don’t often end up reading those that interest me immediately upon publication, but rather months or years after they “hit the street.” This one was different. Something in those early reviews just struck a chord with me and caused me to place a hold on it as soon as I knew it had been ordered. And I wasn’t disappointed.

This work of realistic fiction chronicles the life of a family—husband, wife, and four children—from the time of the parents’ courtship until the death of the father and beyond, examining along the way each unique personality and the relationships that developed between siblings, between parent and child, and between spouses. The point of view changes often as does the chronological setting but I liked that. It helped me feel, by the time I was done reading it, as if I had known these characters for a long time and had actually witnessed the family’s struggles over time. Theirs is not altogether a happy story, but what family story is?


Beyond Clear

If you’ve seen HBO’s recent, much-ballyhooed, critically-acclaimed documentary Going Clear, an exposé of Scientology’s nefarious side, be sure to check out the Lawrence Wright book upon which it was based, the full title of which is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The film consists of two straight hours of jaw-dropping revelations about behind-the-scenes misdeeds and corruption—all disclosed by not just former members of Scientology, but former members who were very highly ranked in the organization (right-hand men, enforcers, etc.). Despite being chock-a-block with trespasses, there is so much more that Wright uncovered in his book that filmmaker Alex Gibney could not fit into his movie, including stories of missing persons, suspicious deaths, and other major conspiracies and scandals. The film is not yet available on DVD (though anyone with HBO or HBO Now can watch it on demand), so if you haven’t seen it yet, you can start with the book, and if you have, the book will provide a vast amount of supplemental information for the fullest, “clearest” experience of this subject.


A Smart Girl’s Guide to Knowing What to Say

A Smart Girls Guide to Knowing What to Say by Patti Kelley Criswell offers VERY good suggestions for making small talk, introducing yourself, and dealing with a host of difficult situations. This is a great book, geared toward upper-elementary kids and teens, but actually good for all ages – even adults.

The book covers how to talk to adults, how to ask for something you want, friendship troubles, saying no, apologizing, dealing with bullies, clever comebacks, etc. etc. etc. It shows most of the conversations in speech bubbles, a great format for today’s kids. It is so good, I am going to buy it so I’ll have it as a reference for my kids and me. I recommend it for boys, too, even though it says smart GIRL’S… the situations and advice in the book applies to both girls and boys.


The Mischievians

“Strange smells. Disappearing remotes. That itch you just can’t reach. It’s not your fault. It’s the Mischievians.” The Mischievians by William Joyce is a new favorite of mine. Rich with creativity and vocabulary, this encyclopedia of mischief-makers made us laugh so hard at the silliness. We wanted to read it again and again. It’s a wonderful picture book to share early readers. Older kids and adults will love the humor in it too. I absolutely love William Joyce books and look forward to each new one! Some of my other favorites from Moonbot Studios, are The Numberlys and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.


Remembering Ivan Doig

Ivan Doig has been one of my favorite writers since I first discovered his books 10-15 years ago. I was sad to read he passed away earlier this month.

Doig wrote primarily of the western landscape and people, usually with a Montana setting where he was born in 1939 and grew up, often accompanying his father on ranch jobs along the Rocky Mountain Front. His use of language, development of the characters, and description of the land stayed with me long after I’d finished each book.

He wrote both fiction and nonfiction; three Montana novels – English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and Ride With Me Mariah Montana, form a trilogy covering the first century of Montana’s statehood from 1889 to 1989.

Tributes to him mention his final book to be published later this year: Last Bus to Wisdom. I’ll be watching our new books for it and in the meantime plan to reread some of my favorites.


Lowriders in Space

Lowriders in Space is a really imaginative flight-of-fancy in a graphic novel format that children and adults will love. With awesome illustrations by Raúl the Third, the story by Cathy Camper features Lupe Impala, the finest mechanic south of Vacaville. She and her friends El Chavo Flapjack and Elirio Malaria (he's a male mosquito so he doesn't bite), have the skills to restore a junker to compete in a contest for the best car around. They need to win so they can use the prize money to open up their own shop. With original characters and illustrations from out of this world, this is the first book in a great new series!