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Staff Picks: Books

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.

Rising Strong

Self-described researcher-storyteller Brené Brown is well known for her research and writing on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most viewed. Several of her books, including The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead are bestsellers. Her fourth book, Rising Strong, published earlier this week, deals with what happens when we exercise courage and fail. Resilience is a hot topic right now, and Brown's new book is definitely worth checking out.


The Nightingale

The World War II time period with a European setting is a particularly popular fiction genre within the past two to three years. I have read many of them, but my favorite to date is Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

The story focuses on two sisters set in a French village beginning in 1939. Both are overcome by the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. One remains in the village which is ultimately taken over by the Germans, the other joins the French underground.

One of the sisters narrates the story from the present, but the reader doesn’t know until the end which sister is telling their shared story.

As expected from a novel of this time and setting, Hannah examines life, love, the ravages of war, and the different ways people react to unthinkable situations. It is well-written and a good read.

Between the World and Me

The talk of the book world today will surely be Harper Lee's greatly anticipated Go Set a Watchman, a sequel to her beloved 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. But another book released today, one that will certainly inspire a lot of conversation, also deserves your attention. Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog for the Atlantic magazine is where the best writing on American life today is happening and his new book, Between the World and Me, continues with that subject in a personal way. Written as a letter to his teenage son Samori, Between the World and Me lyrically describes Coates' experience living in a black, male body within the context of American history.

Coates will visit Kalamazoo in November to speak at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation's community meeting. The event is free and open to the public; find more information at the Community Foundation's website.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

I might be making a professional faux pas, but I’m going to tell you to judge this book by its cover.  Look at the light and airy design of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—doesn’t it look so calm and beautiful?  I imagine calm and beautiful is what my house will be after I put Marie Kondo’s tidying tips into action.  Marie Kondo is a tidying guru in Japan, but her simple, yet inspiring book was just recently translated to English.  Her secret to keeping a house in order, with no clutter relapses, is to throw everything away--well, at least all the items in your home that don’t “spark joy.”  She has a strategy for attacking clutter in a particular order and then explains how to store possessions that are kept.  It’s a fast read and has inspired me to start sorting through my stuff.

Take a Chance with a Couple of Kooks

Miranda July is a Renaissance woman; she’s a fearless explorer in multiple artistic mediums: a filmmaker, a writer, and a performance artist. I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know, an idiosyncratic independent film that addresses loneliness and human connection in contemporary society.  Loneliness and connection are common topics in her work, and her latest artistic venture, the novel The First Bad Man, is no exception to that.  Cheryl Glickman is a middle-aged single woman who has her life organized to virtual non-existence; she has an elaborate system set up (this includes having just enough dishes for one person for one meal) to avoid devolving into a depressed, hoarding, non-bathing mess.  But there wouldn’t be a story here if her life just continued on lonely and tidy—things change drastically when her bosses’ 21-year-old daughter moves in with her.  The First Bad Man is weirdly wonderful. The characters appear odd at first, but really their thoughts, emotions, and illogical natures are so utterly human. I’d recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of Miranda July or who likes eccentric, well-developed characters.

The Girl on the Train

I don’t usually seek out psychological thrillers but I did enjoy The Girl on the Train, often compared to Gone Girl.

The story centers on Rachel who takes the train into London each day, traveling past the backyard of a happy-looking couple she names Jess and Jason. One day, Rachel sees “Jess” kissing another man and the next day “Jess” is missing.

The story is told through the eyes of three characters with plenty of inventive twists and surprising developments – at least to me. This is a page turner, perhaps to be saved for a summer beach read.

How We Got to Now

This 2014 book by Steven Johnson is subtitled Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. Those six are each described in chapters which are entitled glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. Various inventions are recalled under each heading. For example, the chapter on cold discusses the development of refrigeration and the chapter on clean covers advances in public health. The illustrations and photographs by themselves make this book worthy of examination. One of my favorites is the reproduction of the old Clorox ad on page 153. Available in four formats: e-book, digital audiobook, compact disc, and print.

101 Two-Letter Words

For someone who loves books and reading, and is inflicted with an incurable case of curiosity, working in a library is often both a blessing and a curse. I read hundreds of book reviews every year, I see tons of books every day, and I talk about books with patrons, coworkers, and friends incessantly. On top of those sources, my love of bookstores and the existence of the internet means there are untold book discoveries to be made. All those books lead me to seek out even more books, and there's really no hope I'll ever get to all the titles that catch my eye. Earlier this week, while working in the 400 Dewey range of adult non-fiction (the section for language) I stumbled upon a newer book called 101 Two-Letter Words by musician Stephin Merritt, front man of pop band the Magnetic Fields. It's a little book of short poems, one for each of the two-letter words allowed in Scrabble. I recently started playing Scrabble again, so this book was a happy discovery. Merritt's poems make memorizing the two-letter words easier and more enjoyable. Here are a few poems:

The ai, a threatened three-toed sloth
Found only in Brazil,
munches on leaves and sleeps in trees.
I hope it always will.

Qi, in Chinese medicine:
vitality, or breath;
say it "chee," as in "Say cheese!"
Its opposite is death.

"Sh," says the librarian,
"people are trying to read.
And turn that goddamn cellphone off,
before I make you bleed."

The book is illustrated by Roz Chast, whose graphic memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, appeared on numerous best of 2014 lists and was a National Book Award finalist. 101 Two-Letter Words persuaded me to finally pick up her book and reminded me that the library's digital magazine service, Zinio, now offers access to the New Yorker, which Chast works for as a cartoonist. My to-read pile continues to grow!

Good for Amy Poehler!

I recently started listening to the audiobook of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please and I love it. Amy Poehler is a modern feminist heroine to me; she’s funny, passionate, and confident, not to mention extremely successful and hard-working. Her book offers a glimpse into her life--relationships, career, and motherhood—and exudes all the happy humor you’d expect from the SNL alumni and Parks and Recreation star. Her motto, “Good for her! Not for me,” has really stuck with me; it’s a great way of admiring and encouraging other women while still being kind and confident with one’s self.
If you’re a fan of Amy Poehler’s television shows or movies, or enjoyed Tina Fey’s Bossypants, give Yes Please a try. I highly recommend listening to it, as born-performer Amy Poehler reads it herself, along with guest stars such as Kathleen Turner, Patrick Stewart, and Carol Burnett.