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Staff Picks: Books

Owls: Our Most Charming Bird

 Because they are such a rare sight, it is easy to forget how magnificent owls are. Every feature that makes us stop and stare actually serves a very useful purpose. Those large piercing eyes ensure that they’ll never lose sight of their prey. And those round moony faces actually serve as satellite dishes to capture all sound and direct it towards their ears. All the better to hear their next snack.

 Matt Sewell has captured the charm, and majesty of 47 different owls in his pleasing watercolor illustrations. Check this book out today, and discover your new favorite owl! My personal fave? The Greater Sooty Owl. They have little speckles that look like stars in a night sky.  

You Say To Brick

Anyone who has seen the moving documentary, My Architect, will know of the complicated brilliance of the architect Louis Kahn. A new biography, You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn by Wendy Lesser, fills in the detail and the greater context that aren’t possible to cover in a documentary film format. Kahn was an enigma of a man, with facial scarring from a childhood accident and often appearing disheveled from all-night drafting sessions, he was a self-described terrible businessman (his buildings were all completed late and over budget) but possessed an irresistible charisma and an almost mystical approach to architecture that left an indelible mark in his field and on the world.


I think it’s pretty safe to say that I won’t be making the trip to Yellowstone National Park anytime soon. But, I can celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (albeit a few months late) with the help of this book. Subtitled A Journey through America’s Wild Heart, one finds herein a short history of the park; however, author David Quammen’s purpose in writing this book is to describe the park as it exists today. One would expect to find great photography in a publication from the National Geographic Society, and this work is no exception. The unconventional size (7” tall x 10” wide) adds to the uniqueness of this volume. For a good survey of life in today’s Yellowstone, take a look at this.

All the Wild that Remains

On my vacation trip to Utah this year, I brought along All the Wild that Remains by David Gessner. Gessner is a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and is well known for his nature writing. Although he is a New Englander, he fell in love with the West and two revered and influential writers: Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, during some time he spent there in his 20s.

In All the Wild that Remains, Gessner travels around the West to important places in Stegner’s and Abbey’s lives; sometimes interviewing old friends of theirs, and commenting on these writers’ legacies and what they taught us about living in the West.

Stegner, my favorite author, spent some of his formative years in Salt Lake City and chose to have his papers archived at the University of Utah rather than Stanford where he founded and led an outstanding writing program that boasts a long line of famous attendees such as: Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, and our other featured author, Edward Abbey. Stegner fought to preserve the wild places of the West in many ways and is best remembered in environmental circles for what is called the Wilderness Letter, which was influential in creating the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Abbey lived a wilder life and his novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, was the inspiration for the creation of the environmental organization Earth First!. Many agree that his masterpiece though is the autobiographical Desert Solitaire that Abbey wrote about his time as a park ranger in Arches National Park. Unable to attend Abbey’s funeral celebration in southern Utah, Stegner sent these words for Wendell Berry to read, "He had the zeal of a true believer and a stinger like a scorpion . . . He was a red-hot moment in the life of the country, and I suspect that the half-life of his intransigence will be like that of uranium."

If you haven’t heard of either of these authors, it wouldn’t be that surprising. They were characterized as Western authors and therefore, somewhat ignored by the East Coast literati, much to Stegner’s chagrin. Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose wasn’t even reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. 

But now you know about them, so add them to your reading lists.

Government Sponsored Segregation

If anyone is curious about why people live where they live, this book is a must read. Richard Rothstein makes an irrefutable, well-researched, and well written account of how our government segregated America, created ghettos, allowed suburbs to be whites-only, and created the multi-generational problem that still exists today. Every aspect of the government was involved: federal, state, local, city commissions, non-profits, churches, community groups, administrative agencies, the police. The book expands its analysis to other kinds of discrimination that compounded segregation: whites-only unions, taxing African American homeowners more than white people, building schools to reinforce segregation, suppressing the incomes of African Americans in various ways, and physical violence towards African Americans trying to move into white neighborhoods - which the police largely ignored.

The book offers many moderate, urban planning solutions to foster integration. But he also thinks a radical solution is in order, if only we could accept as a country that the problem necessitates a remedy that matches the damage already done:

"We might contemplate a remedy like this: Considering that African Americans comprise about 15 percent of the population of the New York metropolitan area, the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of houses that come up for sale in Levittown at today's market rates (approximately $350,000). It should then resell the properties to qualified African Americans for $75,000, the price (in today's dollars) that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so. The government should enact this program in every suburban development whose construction complied with the FHA's discriminatory requirements [referring to racist FHA policy]".

Reverse White Flight

Before reading this book, I knew very little about gentrification. It made me think of Grand Rapids and Detroit. I had the intuition that it was bad for people of color–turns out my intuition was right—but I didn’t know exactly how it happened, who was pulling the gears and making the policies and building the apartments. It’s much more than white hipsters moving in, opening coffee shops, inflating rent prices, and displacing black people – although that’s part of it. After all, who doesn’t like a fancy coffee shop, right? 

That’s not the point and misses the bigger picture.

Gentrification is a multi-decade urban planning tool used to increase city revenue by cutting services to the poor and giving money to the rich (in the form of business subsidies and real estate development). In that sense, it’s capitalism. After Ronald Reagan changed the way cities get funded (less federal spending on social services), gentrification was sort of a predicable result. The end game of gentrification, whether intentional or not, is the massive displacement of poor and middle class people from their apartments (disproportionately people of color), making way for whiter and wealthier people and business. The final stage of gentrification, ironically, is a city that no longer has people living in it, a completely unaffordable city, a city that houses the wealth of billionaires from around the world in the form of real estate capital—much like New York City.
This book is part research, part social commentary, and part memoir. The author essentially does walking tours of four major cities, remembering the good old days and making fun of the new coffee shops and high-rise apartments and art studios. This gets a little repetitive after a while, I must say. Other than that, I enjoyed the book.

To get to the most important part of the book – the alternatives to gentrification – you have to read the last chapter. The author suggests rent control laws, using “land banked” property for affordable housing, constructing public housing, building infrastructure to accommodate more people living in cities, and raising taxes to spend on the poor.

The Fire This Time

As a white person, watching the events unfold at Charlottesville this past weekend has been a bit surreal—and, of course, deeply disturbing. It’s hard to believe that in 2017 white nationalism is so prominent, but I think it’s hard for me to understand because I don’t experience oppression based on my skin color the way people of color do. As a white person, I’m often wondering what I can do to help change things and make it so white supremacy has no place in our country. As a librarian, I know that knowledge is power and that we have plenty of knowledge behind our doors. I can suggest a few books for anyone interested in expanding their knowledge of racism in the U.S.: The Fire Next Time and The Fire this Time: a new generation speaks about race. The Fire Next Time is a beautiful, poetically written essay by James Baldwin, published in 1963 as the civil rights movement was gaining traction in the U.S. I read it when I was 20, in a Black American Literature class at WMU, and was deeply moved by Baldwin’s experiences as a black man and his passionate call for racial justice 100 years after the end of slavery.

Fire this Time: a new generation speaks about race is a collection of essays and poetry by black writers published in 2016 and edited by Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for her novel Savage the Bones. It’s response to Baldwin’s essay and a continued rallying call for racial justice over 50 years after his essay was originally published. Comparing and contrasting these two books is a great way for white people to deepen their understanding of racism and its hold in the U.S.

If you are interested in learning more about racism or other topics related to social justice, I suggest searching “KPL Social Justice collection” in our catalog. The library has begun gathering works on a variety of topics, such as racism, feminism, ableism, and more in an effort to support social justice in the Kalamazoo community. You can learn more about our social justice commitment here.


Picturing America

Subtitled ‘The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps,’ this is definitely a book that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. It is beautiful. Printed on high quality paper, the maps contained herein are not the kind one would find in a standard atlas, and certainly not on Mapquest or Google maps. These are, in their own way, real works of art. The subdivisions are maps to amuse, maps to instruct, maps of place and region, maps for industry, maps for war, and maps for postwar America. I automatically looked to see if there was a map of Michigan and found the 1935 ‘Map of the Commonwealth of Michigan,’ which shows illustrations of natural features and major industries. The essence of these maps can be summarized in the tribute on page 33 to mapmaker Ernest Dudley Chase: The man who turns the prose of maps into the poetry of art. What a wonderful addition to KPL’s collection!

Steven Universe: Art and Origins

Animated series Steven Universe is one of the most beautiful shows on television right now, and has inspired a large and devoted fandom. I think what sets the show apart is that every element of the show is carried out thoughtfully – from the story and development of the characters, to the sound editing, even the tiniest details nestled into the background are often purposely drawn in to foreshadow future events.

It’s always a treat to watch a new, perfectly polished episode of Steven Universe, but it is fascinating to flip through this book and see early character designs and to read Rebecca Sugar’s early thoughts about who the characters were when she pitched the pilot and who they have now become. In this book we get to see rejected episode storylines, unfinished storyboards, and we also get to read about the creator’s childhood, the projects she was working on in college, and the cartoons she watched growing up. A must read for any fan of the show.


If you’re looking for a little inspiration for your patio or trying to perk up your houseplants, Potted: Make Your Own Stylish Garden Plants is a great place to start. Potted offers a variety of fun d.i.y projects to build cool and creative pots for all sorts of plants, whether in outdoors spaces or inside on a windowsill. The instructions are detailed and include a number of pictures, making these d.i.y’s a no-brainer.