Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

Safe Passage

I love finding little hidden jewels in our nonfiction collection! One of these marvelous jewels is a book entitled Safe Passage: the remarkable true story of two sisters who rescued Jews from the Nazis. This is a reprint of a 1950 memoir entitled “We Followed Our Stars” and it is the story of Ida Cook and her sister Louise as they recount the efforts they made to save Jews from Nazi concentration camps. Passionate Opera fans, they became involved with the suffering of Jewish friends in Europe on frequent forays from their home in London to the continent to listen to Opera performances. During the course of the war, they made many trips, using forged documents, to save Jews – and listen to Opera! They often smuggled jewels out of Europe to fund the release of Jews, and even purchased a flat in London to house recently saved Jews.

One of the really unique aspects of this book is the charming, optimistic, no-big-deal attitude of the sisters, who felt that the opportunity life gave them to travel to Europe and savor the Opera was as much a blessing to them, as was their unwavering efforts to save as many Jews from the concentration camps as they possibly could. In 1965 they were honored as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel. This book is a delightful read!


Safe Passage

Mistaken Identity

Mistaken Identity; two families, one survivor, unwavering hope written by Don and Susie VanRyn and Newell, Colleen & Whitney Cerak with Mark Tabb, is the true story about Laura VanRyn of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Whitney Cerak of Gaylord, Michigan, two young college students who attended Taylor University in Indiana.  Their story is both tragic and redemptive.  On April 26, 2006, Whitney and Laura were traveling, along with other students and staff in two university vans, back to campus after working at a banquet when, suddently, one of the vans was struck by a semitrailor that crossed over the center median of I-69 near the Marion, Indiana, exit.  "The van was carrying five students and four food services employees.  Of the nine people in the van, five had died."  Laura was taken to Parkview Hospital in Ft. Wayne, Indiana...unconscious, in critical condition, broken bones and a very serious head injury.  Unfortunately, Whitney was pronounced dead.

The events following this tragic day for the Cerak family and the VanRyn family are tremendous loss and eventual triumph.  It is emotional, tender, loving, prayerful, but most of all, overflowing with their unwavering faith and strength in Jesus Christ.  The book is well written; it takes the reader on a chronologically documented reality of their circumstances and the struggles faced by the victims' families, friends, communities, university, and medical personnel.

Perhaps you remember the national media events of this story:  after five weeks of hospitalization and therapy it was discovered that Laura was the student who died in the accident and Whitney is the student who survived, a consequence of mistaken identity.  The powerful ordeal of faith and forgiveness is highly recommended not only because of its geographic proximity to Kalamazoo, but also because of the tremendous love, inspiration and respect gleaned for the VanRyn and Cerak families.


Mistaken Identity



Science vs. Religion, or Science and Religion?

This is a must-read for anyone confused or curious about the historical relationship between science and religion. For most, especially modern Americans, the accepted story is that these two cherished disciplines have always been at war, and still are; that the rise of one is the fall of the other; that they are a divorced couple who should  never have been married in the first place. In an era of Richard Dawkins and the Intelligent Design movement, this story is hard not to accept.

The editor and contributor of this collection of essays calls this story "the greatest myth in the history of science and religion," argues that it is propagandist in nature, recognizes that several sub-myths are related to it; and proceeds to "dispel the hoary myths that continue to pass as historical truths" in chronological order, beginning with the murder of Hypatia and ending with creationism in America. As you will read, some are partly true, some completely false, and many simply need to be qualified and amended.

Nowadays it may be hard to find a general-audience book that is not biased to either science or religion, but with a twenty-five numbered cast of specialists on science and/or religion who convincingly have "no...scientific or theological axes to grind" (half are agnostic/atheist, the other being members of various religions), I think we have found one.

Galileo Goes to Jail


Fantastic Mr. Fox

I am really looking forward to seeing the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, both because I’m a fan of director Wes Anderson and a fan of stop-motion animation.  The movie is based on the book of the same title by Roald Dahl, author of such children’s classics as The Witches and Matilda.  I imagine that Wes Anderson’s penchant for quirky characters and minutely-detailed  sets will pair well with Roald Dahl’s odd sense of humor.  My only question is: should I read the book or see the movie first?



Fantastic Mr. Fox

Lit: A Memoir

Mary Karr described her Texas childhood in The Liar’s Club, her adolescence in Cherry (also available in audiobook form), and now her descent into alcoholism, her stay at the “Mental Marriott,” and her resurrection in Lit.

I thought I had read enough memoirs of a hard life, dysfunctional family, drugs, and alcohol, but since I liked her writing in the first two memoirs, I wanted to know what followed.

This is more than a story of alcoholism and the effects on a marriage. It is about coming to terms with family, a needy self, a spiritual longing, and rediscovering your writing voice.

She is a masterful storyteller of her fight for survival during her late teen, college, early career, and motherhood years. This one stands alone or as the third in the memoir series.


Lit: A Memoir

Bargains Galore!?

Don’t get me wrong, I love a bargain just as much as the next guy, but all of the consumer anticipation and retailer hype over the looming Black Friday shopping extravaganza has me considering my recent reading of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture and taking a closer look at how much things cost and why they cost that much. In the book, Shell, a contributing editor for The Atlantic, examines the history and intricate market forces that go into the price we pay for the stuff that we buy. Sounds a bit dry, I know, but Shell’s well researched and thorough examination of price is anything but, and follows the winding historic path that has led from a time when goods were scarce and quality was paramount to our current marketplace where, in Shell’s assessment, quality means very little, price is king, and profit margins have grown so incredibly thin that innovation is a luxury that very few companies can afford. My reading tastes don’t often veer into the economics section of the library, but I was glad that they did for this title.


Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture

The Lightning Thief

After being asked several times recently for “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan, I realized that generally I was being asked for the book by the same audience- 4th-6th grade boys. So I decided to read it, to see what makes this title (first in the series) so popular.

I was immediately caught up in the fast paced story, which is a blend of fantasy, myth, and monsters. It’s a winning combination. Twelve year old Percy Jackson is about to be kicked out of school (again). How can he stand by and watch his scrawny best friend be bullied, or not defend himself when his algebra teacher turns herself into a monster and tries to kill him? It turns out that Percy is the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. As he discovers his heritage, he loses his mother and finds himself in real danger, along with his new friends Grover, a satyr, and Annabelle, a daughter of Athena. The Greek gods are still very much alive and well in the modern world. They are feuding over Zeus’ lost thunderbolt, and Percy and his  friends depart on a quest across America to retrieve it. Along the way, in addition to the non-stop action, issues are also raised about trust, family, and the environment. 

Now I know why kids have been requesting these fast moving, humorous adventure stories- (what one reviewer called “an adventure quest with a hip edge.” ) They’re good reads.


The Lightning Thief

One of the Best of 2009

Pat Tillman was a famous, professional football player who enlisted in an elite troop of army rangers after the September 11th attacks. Tillman sacrificed a large salary that would have made him millions and committed to a three year stint that would ultimately take him to both Iraq and Afghanistan. That is what most Americans knew of Pat Tillman prior to learning about his death in 2004.

Tillman’s death atop a rugged mountainside in Khost Province, a region of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, was more than just a routine death by enemy soldiers but rather a troubling story of friendly fire that unfolded amidst a military cover-up. Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, takes the reader alongside Tillman as he emerges from the crude stereotypes often rendered of professional athletes and shown to be a dynamic subject full of humane depth and internal contradictions. As much as the book focuses on Tillman's rise to football fame and the scandal surrounding his death, lay history readers will glean great insights about the country of Afghanistan, its recent history, and the often under discussed topic of wartime fratricide.

Join me and several other librarians on December 3rd at 6:30pm as we talk about some of the best books of 2009. This program will provide helpful lists of recently published books, albums and movies that might be great holiday gifts.


Where Men Win Glory: the odyssey of pat tillman

The Day-Glo Brothers Brighten Up Our Lives

I’m always happy to discover wonder in subjects that I know little about – like visual art. Ellen Stoll Walsh’s  Mouse Magic makes color theory fun and offers readers the chance to experience how we perceive color. Complementary colors, the ones opposite each other on the color wheel, appear to jump around when juxtaposed. Cool!

The last year has seen some other entries into the “picture books about color and the way we perceive it” mini-genre. An Eye for Color is the story of Josef Albers. After immigrating to the United States in the early 1930s, Albers spent many years systematically studying color relationships until he produced Interaction of Color, a now classic text that demonstrates what he learned in his disciplined explorations. We perceive what we can objectively say is the same color in very different ways depending on the environment the color is situated.

The Day-Glo Brothers is the surprisingly interesting story of how Bob and Joe Switzer developed Day-Glo paint. I know, I know - it doesn’t sound that interesting. Why check this book out? Because Chris Barton shares a great piece of American industrial history and a compelling family story. From one brother’s desire to light up his magic show and the other brother’s need to make money to pay his medical bills after a workplace accident, the Switzers developed something we see every day – those shockingly bright greens, oranges and yellows. Brighten up your own day with picture books at the library.


The Day-Glo brothers: The true story of Bob and Joe Switzer's bright ideas and brand-new colors

Stand the Storm

Gabriel Coats, his mother, Sewing Annie, his fiancée, Mary, and his sister, Ellen buy their freedom after great suffering, and open a tailor shop and laundry in Washington, DC, just before the Civil War. Not surprisingly, their master tries to regain control of his former property and the family is forced to pay for their “freedom” again and again.

Stand the Storm is an uplifting love story of men and women attempting to free themselves from slavery. The strength of the story lies in the character development and the exploration of their relationships with each other during a time when former slaves fought for their lives almost on a daily basis.

I realize I knew little about slaves who had bought their freedom before the Civil War. This is a compelling story of injustice and sadness, yet also with joy and hope.


Stand the Storm
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