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Staff Picks: Books

Do Gooders: Saints or Syndrome?

What if every single time you bought a coffee from Starbucks, you felt an extreme amount of moral guilt? After all, 2 dollars donated to Oxfam can have a significant effect on real people that are really suffering in the world. This is a fascinating look at the personal stories and science behind and opinions about "do gooders." And we are not talking about merely nice people (sometimes they're not pleasant). These are moral saints, people who take morality to the extreme, who get rid of all their stuff and travel to a foreign country to save lives. 

The book has a nice structure. A chapter about a do-gooder is followed by the history of what culture has thought about do-gooders in general - whether that be philosophy, religion, psychology, literature, or common sense. Throughout history, do-gooders have made is uncomfortable, and therefore we have been skeptical about them.

I think do-gooders come in two different flavors. First, there are people who have intense empathy. When they think about a person drowning, the feel as though their own child is literally drowning. These people can easily become moral saints. Second, there are people who take moral principles seriously. Utilitarian morality, for example, says that we should relieve the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest amount of people. If we took that seriously (as the philosopher Peter Singer has argued), we would instantly donate most of our income to Oxfam, leaving just enough money for us to subsist. That's a haunting thought for some people.

Conclusion: the writing style of this book is very run-on. It took me a lot of patience, but was worth it.



Chicago is Brian Doyle’s most recent novel. It almost doesn't seem like a novel at all, but a series of poetic vignettes and character sketches. It very much reminds me of his essays, in which his joyful and generous spirit is clear through humorous, vivid, and sometimes fantastical observations about his family, sports, nature, and life in general. The narrator of Chicago is a recent college graduate who has just moved to the city for work, and the book mostly describes his encounters with the people who live in his apartment building and his own explorations of the city. Knowing Doyle’s writing, it’s pretty clear the narrator is based on the author, and his love for the city is obvious and believable.

I may not be entirely impartial because I grew up outside Chicago during the time of the novel (it takes place over a little more than a year in the late 70’s), so it was a nostalgic read. However, you don’t need to know the place to be charmed by the many colorful characters, especially Edward the dog.

Sadly, Doyle was diagnosed with a brain tumor last fall, and I fear he might not be writing anything new, but I encourage you to look up his body of work, which includes several novels and many collections of stories, essays, and poetry.

Leaves of Grass

I suppose that one of the primary elements of a “classic” work is that it feels unsullied by the bearing of time, that it defies the swings of fashion, that it transcends the circumstances of its historical origin, and resists and survives the ideological checks often imposed upon its vision by contemporary optics. These works, while not encased in perfection or untouchable to fair and leveling criticisms, feel lively and relatable even as they grow distant from their author’s original conception. One of these books for me is Walt Whitman’s epoch poem Leaves of Grass.

Years after I first wandered through its sprawling breadth, I can still pick it up today and it will have something profound to say about me and about us. Whitman’s scope was both grand and granular, personal and universal, going where no American writer had previously gone and where few have tread since. His project was to mine the American project with both questions and answers, to boast of its unique exceptionalism and to expose its deeply woven flaws with beauty, intelligence and reverence. As a modern work, birthed over a half of the 19th century, it still holds up as a broad, crowded work of lyric genius that you can pick your way through, hopping around to ignore certain sections while zeroing in on others.

Harry Miller's Run

 Liam and his pal Jacksie are planning to run in the Junior Great North Run and they need to get their training in, but Liam’s elderly neighbor Harry needs some help this afternoon so he and his Mam stop by.  When Harry hears about Liam’s plan, does he have a story to tell!  This short, quirky illustrated novel doesn’t easily fit in a category, but it is caught in my mind.  The evocative language in Harry Miller’s Run is as compelling as the tale told. 



Let's Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout!

Available as an eBook and a print format book, Let's Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn it Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood, is a beautifully illustrated new collection that is chock full of great songs, proverbs, rhymes, and stories. I’m excited about this new title because it provides lots of great activities for caregivers to talk, read, sing, write, and play with their young children while providing a personalized historical perspective. Brian Pinkney’s swirling illustrations represent the constant movement that makes up the lives of children. Patricia McKissack, often with her husband Frederick L. McKissack, has authored many books including biographies, picture books, novels for older readers, and fascinating history. This wonderful new collection, with something for readers or read-tos of all ages, is a very welcome addition!


 It’s Black History Month! A time to celebrate the accomplishments of African Americans, but also a great time to examine some of the social issues and complexities of race in America.  For all of the insistence upon inherent difference between races, it is actually just a social construct based on appearance with a few cultural differences thrown in for good measure. Or as Maya Angelou put it in her poem Human Family, “we are more alike, my friends/ than we are unalike.” 

In the 1920’s when Black Americans were treated poorly and granted way less opportunities for success, many fair-skinned Black Americans decided to cut ties with their family and friends to  try and live out the American Dream the best way they knew how—by pretending to be White. Americans were all too aware of this, and as a result, there were many films and novels focused on the subject of passing.

My absolute favorite novel from this time period is Passing by Nella Larsen. Published in 1929, during the Harlem Renaissance, the story follows two women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, childhood friends who meet later as adults. Irene is married, and living in Harlem right in the hub of the Black social circle, while Clare, a wealthy socialite who married a racist White man, is passing for White.

Passing explores themes of deception, jealousy, loyalty and betrayal. It’s a tale of fashionable frenemies, scandalous parties, and a crazy twist ending I’d love to talk to you about if you get a chance to read it. I love it to pieces and hope you will too. 


Feline Piano Composer and Player

Based on a true story, Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed by Leslea Newman with illustrations by Amy June Bates is a real winner for both music lovers and cat enthusiasts.

The book introduces us to Moshe Cotel, a composer for the piano who lives in a very busy and loud city. But far from it being a distraction, Moshe uses the urban noise as the starting off point for his numerous compositions.

One day, while on his usual afternoon walk around the neighborhood, he hears the forlorn "mew" of a tiny, lost kitten. He picks up the black and white tyke, names her Ketzel, and brings her back to his apartment.

Shortly thereafter, a letter arrives in the mailbox from the Paris New Music Review announcing a piano competition contest with one stipulation: No piece may be longer than sixty seconds!

Moshe exclaims that creating a musical work of such brevity is impossible, so he places the letter aside, not giving it another thought. On the other hand, the next day he decides to give it a try. From the outset, he is completely stymied by the task. Whatever he starts, he cannot finish. He takes his failures so hard that he temporarily stops playing the piano.

One day Ketzel creeps across the piano keys with all four paws much to Moshe's auditory delight. He proclaims Ketzel to be a musical genius who has composed the unbelievable: A piece for piano with a distinct beginning, middle and end that lasts only twenty-one seconds! So he names the solo composition "Piece for Piano: Four Paws", and sends it off to the contest judges.

A few weeks later, he receives a letter saying that although he didn't win a prize, the submitted work does merit a certificate of special mention, which comes with an invitation to attend a concert where the piece will be played.

Moshe sneaks Ketzel into the concert hall in his vest pocket and every time the young pianist chosen to perform the work mentions Ketzel by name, the kitten responds with a loud, emphatic MEOW!

Animals are forbidden from entering the concert hall but after Moshe reveals that Ketzel is the actual composer of the piece, both are allowed to remain. Several encores later, "Piece for Piano:Four Paws" turns into musical history.

Ketzel becomes quite famous and receives a royalty check in the amount of nineteen dollars and seventy-two cents which purchases many cans of yummy cat food.

An engaging tale, wonderfully reminiscent of Nora, the piano playing cat of YouTube fame!

This blog is dedicated to the memory of Rocky, a wonderful cat companion of one of my colleagues, Keith.



If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, Don't!

Occasionally while reading in the various book review publications I will stop at the children's section just to see what's new. An ad for this one caught my attention so I thought I would check to see if KPL owned it, and, sure enough, we did. As one of three books we have by Elise Parsley, a children's author who lives 21 miles from a beach in South Dakota, this is a funny story. It begins, 'If your mom says to get ready to play at the beach, she means with a boat, or a frisbee, or a shovel. She is NOT talking about the piano.' The illustrations are well done. I love the ending too. Next on my list might be Ms. Parsley's If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, DON'T!

The life of a Pullman Porter

The Pullman Porter: AnAmerican Journey touched my heart. Not just because there is a lot information that is not generally known but also because my father had been a porter many, many years ago. My brothers, sisters and I romanticized his journeys and thought my dad looked handsome in his uniform. We were not aware of how demanding, degrading and difficult the job was. After all, what did being a Pullman Porter have to do with shining shoes, babysitting, making beds and other forms of servitude?

 After reading this book, I realized also that my dad was traveling and learning things about this country. He was able to learn what was important to share with his children and to teach us what we needed to know in order to survive in America. The Pullman Porter: An American Journey was written by Vanita Oelschlager. Vanita Oelschlager publishes books for children that teaches morals and values I personally appreciate her acknowledgement of the Pullman Porters.


March: Book 3, the final installment of the graphic novel trilogy authored by Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, was chosen as the Michael L. Printz award winner for excellence in Young Adult Literature on January 23 at ALA Youth Media Awards. This graphic novel chronicles the coming of age of Freedom Rider and Civil Rights activist, John Lewis. This incredible graphic novel, also the first GN to win the National Book Award, will inspire and encourage young people and adults to live a life of service. We can all be encouraged by John Lewis' example.