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Staff Picks: Books

The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

 This is sort of a fun read for those who may be looking for a bit of a darker read but aren’t really ready for something scary.  The head mistress of a ladies’ finishing school and her brother are poisoned and rather than report the crime to the local police the seven students decide to hide it in an effort to avoid being sent home and separated from each other.  Disgraceful Mary Jane, Sly Kitty, and Stout Alice (each girl has a moniker) haphazardly cobble together a cover up while Pocked Louise sets her sights on finding the killer.  The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is an interesting read for anyone who enjoys murder mysteries with female protagonists.

 


5 ingredients 15 minutes: 125 speedy recipes

 

Summer makes me think of wonderful things to eat, with all the fresh local produce available to us. There are so many summertime activities to participate in, though, particularly outdoors, that I don’t want to spend a lot of time inside cooking and preparing food.

That’s why a new title, 5 ingredients, 15 minutes; 125 speedy recipes caught my eye. The title uses recipes from sources like Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Country Living. There are quick and delicious ideas for salads, sandwiches, pasta, desserts, and chicken (including already prepared rotisserie chickens.)

So- you can eat well, and spend less time in the kitchen this summer. (or anytime, for that matter!)


How Dark were the Dark Ages

This book has me confused. The point of the book is to argue against the commonly-held narrative that the theocratic Dark Ages were against science, intolerant of other religions, violent, and overly superstitious. So, in contrast, the author presents a biography of "The Scientist Pope," an intelligent man that becomes Pope in the late 900's. "To tell the story of his life," she says, "is to rewrite the history of the Middle Ages...The Church was not anti-science--just the reverse."

So far, so good. But, eventually, you find out that not only was he excommunicated twice, accused of treason, and fled for his life on at least one occasion, but that when Pope Sylvester finally became Pope, he didn't really do anything for science or for humanity. In fact, he engaged in huge campaigns to convert "pagans" and spread his version of Christianity to the world. In the meantime, we get to hear about family rivalries, betrayal, political assassinations, and all sorts of nonsense. In other words, I wasn't convinced (in fully disclosure, I did not read the whole thing, shame on me, I became uninterested).


Girl in the dark

For fellow biography lovers, here is an especially unique story. Girl in the dark : a memoir details the plight of a young woman, Anna Lyndsey, who develops an extremely rare condition where any exposure to natural or artificial light feels like a blowtorch to her skin. Thus, she must live in total darkness most of the time. She finds ways to cope and pass her time, inventing many word games to play in the dark. She often has to go to tremendous lengths to get normal life activities accomplished. The book makes you think – if you’re like me, you’ll be imagining all sorts of inventions that could help protect her from light. This is an inspiring story that leaves you appreciating some of the mundane things you complain about in everyday life.

 


The Magic Mirror

Kamara had a hard day at school. One of the boys called her names and used some nasty words talking about her. The one bright spot is that she is on her way to gramma’s house. Kamara knew that gramma would make her feel better. And gramma did. Gramma sent Kamara to clean the mirror upstairs. It was a mirror that had been passed down from her great grandmother to her grandmother and it turned out to be a magic mirror. When Kamara started rubbing the mirror she saw another young girl’s eyes staring back at her.  Through the eyes of women throughout the past centuries Kamara was able to see the violence, hatred and poverty that women of color have faced throughout history. Through it Kamara sees humiliation and determination. She sees pride, beauty and courage.  

There is a lot of history in this very small book. In The Magic Mirror Zetta Elliott does an amazing job of teaching history and courage. She sends the message to young girls that they are not alone.


Being Mortal

 “You don’t need to sacrifice your autonomy just because you need help in your life.”

This is one of the many pearls of wisdom I took from Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a book I’ve been hearing about from others for several months now. Whether facing one’s own sickness, old age, and/or frailty, or caring for someone else’s, this volume poses important questions we might all ask. Gawande, a physician who cites examples from both his professional and personal experience, looks at the truths of human nature that can make the caregiving process—and possible end-of-life realities—less cause for fear and anxiety than it often is.   

More questions/concerns to ponder:
• What makes life worth living when we are old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? (p. 92)
• Human beings have a need for both privacy and community, for flexible daily rhythms and patterns, and for the possibility of forming caring relationships with those around them. (p. 131)

And finally:
• A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives. (p. 282)


Islamic Reformation

For people who respect all world religions, including Islam, this book will be hard to read. Indeed it was for me. It tells the tale of heartbreaking atrocities done in the name of religion, but then goes on to say, as a more generalized theoretical argument, that Islam itself has major problems, that the religion of Islam is violent, that it needs a Reformation like Christianity had. The author, raised in Somalia as a Muslim, has a brutal and oppressive childhood story. Running away to the Netherlands, she divorced her native religion and embraced Western culture and ideas. From there, Dutch Parliament, fellow at Harvard, bestselling author, 100 most influential people in the world according to Time. She has a voice. Here, she calls for a complete Reformation of Islam. And she means it: Stop taking the Koran so seriously, stop taking Muhammed so seriously, stop taking the afterlife so seriously, and forget about Sharia and Jihad. Those are her main suggestions.

If you read this book, I would also suggest comparing it with the thought of Reza Aslan, who has a much more nuanced and complex view regarding Islam, violence, and socio-political considerations. Islam, after all, has over a billion converts all over the world. Therefore, to make any sweeping generalizations about it is virtually impossible. The Islam of Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is not the Islam of India, or America, or Turkey.


Station Eleven

"Because survival is insufficient."

With those words (amusingly taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) as their creed, the remnants of a near-future worldwide epidemic attempt to not only survive, but also maintain their humanity. Station Eleven presents several overlapping stories, spanning decades both pre- and post-apocalypse, all revolving around washed-up actor Arthur Leander, who dies onstage during a performance of King Lear moments before the beginning of the epidemic that ends civilization.

Like The Road with a (marginally) more optimistic outlook on life, or the world of Mad Max populated by theater majors instead of post-nuclear mutants, Station Eleven asks what it means to truly be human in a landscape where humanity is severely diminished. A significant portion of the book follows a nomadic theater troupe as they wander between the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare while fighting off bandit attacks and foraging for food. The most quietly devastating section, however, is the last third of the novel, taking place at a small airport in Indiana where the last remnants of humanity slowly congregate, complete with all of its' struggles and triumphs realized in miniature.

Quiet and contemplative, and beautiful as it is brutal, Station Eleven is a welcome and refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic disaster genre.

 


Making Everyday Electronics Work

Making Everyday Electronics Work is a do-it-yourself introductory guide to fixing and maintaining all things electronic. The strength of the book isn't only in getting information on how to fix specific kinds of gadgets. In fact, the title obscures the book's great strength: providing an overview of how electricity works. Instead of a cookbook reference to fixing a handful of electrical systems, here's an explanation of how electrical systems work from generation to consumption. We get a welcome explanation of all of those power line components that take electricity from the power plant to your toaster. As advertised, however, there are entire sections on tools and tests for understanding wireless devices, electronics in your vehicle and much more. It's not a big book and it's not exhaustive, but Making Everyday Electronics Work answers lots of big questions and provides a great introduction to deeper exploration.


California

I recently picked up author Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California from the Central library’s Library Reads display after seeing its cool cover there for several weeks. I’m happy to report that I have yet to be disappointed by the quality of any of the Library Reads selections that I have read and California is certainly no exception to that rule. California follows the story Micah and Cal, newlywed twenty-something Los Angeles residents, as they flee the city and the seemingly imminent total collapse of civilization for the northern California wilderness. What they find in that wilderness and how they survive will weave together their personal and family histories with more and more mystery and complexity being added along the way to keep you wildly turning the pages until the very end.