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Staff Picks: Books


Leslie Jamison’s book of essays, The Empathy Exams, begins with her experience working as a medical actor. What is a medical actor? I had the same question. It is an actor that is given a profile of someone with a particular ailment and symptoms and personality. Then they will have a mock appointment with a medical student so the student can practice diagnosing the illness. However, they aren’t just practicing the clinical part, but the social skills part; the ability to empathize with their patient and create a relationship where the patient would be willing to talk freely about their illness.

Can you practice empathy? Can you practice empathy when you know the person is just acting?

These are some of the questions she explores in the first essay. After that, the most difficult ultramarathon race, a prison in West Virginia, mines in Bolivia, and a tour of South Central Los Angeles are just a few of the places she will take you on her nuanced and moving dissection of empathy.

B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy)

While working in the chapter books collection of the Children’s Room, B.U.G (Big Ugly Guy), a middle grade chapter book by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, caught my attention. Sammy Greenburg gets bullied (a lot) because he stands up for other kids. When a new 6th grader, John “Skink” Skinner, comes to Sammy's aid, they are fast friends - in part because both are musicians and they both love words. Sammy plays clarinet and Skink plays guitar. Sammy introduces his friend to klezmer music and they aspire to start a band with their friend Julia on violin. The plot thickens when Sammy decides to make a golem, the mythical, hulking, protecting colossus of Jewish folklore, out of his father’s pottery clay. And, of course, that’s how they get a drummer for their nascent klez/punk band. It’s pretty cool to find a middle-grade novel with references to The Klezmatics and even a brief explication of some klez scale patterns. There are inevitable problems when building your own golem to vanquish school yard bullies. You’ll have to read the book to find out how it ends.

How to Set a Fire and Why

Jesse Ball writes the kind of novels that, while amazing and among my favorites, are often difficult to recommend to a lot of people. Not because they are of sub-par literary quality in any way, but because they are often experimental, hypnotic and seem intent on confounding the reader. Recommending a few of his titles to friends and family has made it clear that Ball really isn’t everyone’s “cup of tea”. But that may  change with his latest effort How to Set a Fire and Why. The book is a fair bit more accessible than his previous titles, but it is the narrative voice that Ball uses to give life to the books narrator Lucia that makes it a read that I feel more people would and should enjoy. Lucia is a high school aged, sharp-tongued straight talker very much in the tradition of Holden Caulfield. But Lucia is also a wannabe arsonist and potentially a real danger to society, yet her sense of humor and intelligence makes her immediately likable. Plus she spells out and follows a strict ethical code of her own design. Her circumstances are beyond tragic, but the boldness of Lucia’s wit and the power of her individuality ultimately assure you that despite the sad truth of her life, Lucia will survive. You may not go on to read more of Jesse Ball’s work, and that’s ok, but once you get to know Lucia you won't soon forget her and you won't put this book down.

Known and Strange Things

My favorite writers are those whose writings tend to defy rigid categories. I’m interested in voices whose passionate minds are rich with curiosity and whose texts feel less like someone rooted to certainties and more like an interrogation of social reality as a shifting terrain of beliefs butting up against power dynamics, history and politics. Over the past few years I’ve been drawn to books of essays and memoirs whose authors are fascinated by a wide range of subjects and themes. Teju Cole is my kind of writer and the kind thinker that our times require in order to make sense (or at the very least question) of complex issues. And in this book of 50 essays, he pulls it off with a beautiful prose that is inviting and accessible. His newest book Known and Strange Things: Essays is a wildly perceptive book that packs a punch even though it resists feeling ‘ideological’ or like someone shouting truths at you. From his interest in photography to James Baldwin’s experiences in Switzerland, to his love of literature to his various travels around the world, Cole’s erudite voice is that of someone whose sparkling mind finds immense joy in the world’s fertile landscape of ideas and culture.

Unveiling The Cloud Forest Dwelling Olinguito

Olinguito, from A to Z! by Lulu Delacre is an award winning alphabet book written in both Spanish and English. It takes the reader on a journey accompanying an intrepid zoologist searching out the elusive olinguito. An olinguito is a mammal recently discovered to be a separate species. Related to the raccoon, olinguitos live exclusively in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

This beautifully illustrated volume features the many plants and animals who call the cloud forest their home. It also includes the author's notes about the real discovery of the olinguito, as well as additional information about the cloud forest, how the illustrations came to be, on being an explorer, and a glossary of the various cloud forest plants and animals(with their Spanish pronunciations).As an added bonus, there is a built-in puzzle/game that will have younger readers going back to play more than once.

Very creative and truly Magnifico!

Henna House

A few of my fellow KPL librarians decided to try a Reading Challenge this year just for the fun of it.  There are a ton of challenges out there but this is the one we’ve been using.   It’s been a great experience since it’s given us a chance to discover good books we otherwise would have avoided.  I was nervous about “The First Book You See in a Bookstore” challenge but the book I first laid eyes on has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.  Nomi Eve’s Henna House may have been on that bookstore’s bargain cart, but it was a hidden gem.  

The book follows the life of young Adela as she grows up in 1920s Yemen.  Her family is Jewish and her father’s health is failing.  If she is orphaned, she risks being taken by the Confiscator who will place her with a Muslim family, forcing her to give up her religion and her family ties.  Her parents desperately try to arrange a marriage for her, which would save her from the Confiscator’s grip, but misfortune keeps following poor Adela.  Despite her situation looking hopeless, she finds solace and acceptance in her aunt’s house where she learns the tradition of henna and develops a close friendship with her cousin, Hani.

Reading this book was a delight since it was easy to get swept away in Adela’s storytelling.  It’s as if she is taking her life story and turning it into a beautiful henna that weaves in all her joys and sorrow.  You also learn a lot about the traditions and history of the Yemenite Jewish population pre-World War II; it’s eye opening to see how their lives were affected even before the war began.  I’m grateful that my 2016 Reading Challenge allowed me to stumble across a great book that I otherwise may not have noticed.  This is why I’m challenging you- the next time you stop into KPL and pick up your copy of Henna House, also check out the first book you see in the library.  You may be surprised at what you find!

Inequality in these United States

I did not read this book. But you should. Really, try it.

I couldn’t read it. I can only tolerate a certain amount of charts, graphs, statistics, and facts upon facts. I’m exaggerating. Actually, my complete lack of knowledge and interest about the economy, and how it works, was a major roadblock for me. I simply didn’t have an entry point. Also, it's quite academic.

The book traces the history of inequality in America from the very beginning—when we were drinking the King’s tea—to now. When was it best? (hint: not now). When was it worse? (hint: now). It’s a story that ebbs and flows and, most importantly, it’s a story about policies and how those policies limit or expand inequality. In other words, this is not art, witchcraft, or guessing: policies have predictable results, and politicians should be clever enough to know those results. At the end of the book, the author’s try to make policy suggestions. The two that I remember were investing in education and having an “inheritance tax” (that is, taxing wealth that is passed on and inherited…yeah, that's right; it’s un-American, darn it! Pull yourself up by your own bookstraps!).

If you read books about the economy, and are interested in this social justice issue, you will enjoy this well researched book.

Worms For Breakfast: How to Feed A Zoo

What did you have for breakfast this morning? What is usually on your breakfast menu? I bet you are not having dried ants to taste, ¾ pound small oily fish or 1 teaspoon ground cuttlefish bone. But a gorilla will have the ants, a flamingo chick will have the oily fish and a snail will have the cuttlefish bone mixed in his snail trail mix. If this sounds interesting, then you will want to read Worms For Breakfast: How to Feed A Zoo. It is full of information and recipes for feeding all the zoo animals. Feeding time at the zoo is always one of the most popular events and this book is a cookbook for the animals. There are recipes for Predator Popsicles, Presto Pesto Sauce – Koala Style and Elephant-slimming Fruit Fandango. Worms For Breakfast is packed with facts about animal nutrition and feeding them. It also includes how the animals hunt and eat in the wild and how the zoo feeds them so they feel as though they are in the wild hunting for their own food.

The author answers questions about what and how much each animal eats, who cooks and serves the food (a zoo nutritionist) and what does the grocery shopping list look like. There is so much fun information in this book. The photographs and illustrations will keep families busy reading and looking at this book over and over again.

This book really is fun – oh by the way I had an English muffin with peanut butter for breakfast today – hold the ants!

Ada Twist, Scientist

You can never go wrong with a children's book that rhymes.  You can go far with a children's book that promotes STEM.  Ada Twist, Scientist is the newest creation by the authors of Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect.  A must read for inspiring the young and encouraging the curious mind.

Grandparents Day

Yesterday was National Grandparents Day, but these picture books featuring stories about kids and their grandparents are great to share all year long.

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji

My Abuelita

A Morning With Grandpa

North Woods Girl

Last Stop on Market Street

Mango, Abuela, and Me