Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
The world lost Martin Gardner on Saturday, May 22nd. He was 95. Gardner was a prolific writer on many subjects, but is perhaps best known for books about tricks and puzzles, optical illusions, and recreational math. In the early 1950s, Gardner edited the children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty. In 1956, Gardner began writing Scientific American's Mathematical Games column which ran for 25 years. Gardner introduced lots of people to the work of then contemporary M.C. Escher when the work of the great Dutch artist was not so well known. Gardner wrote The Annotated Alice. Gardner also focused on debunking pseudoscience. Here is Scientific American's tribute to Martin Gardner.
Congratulations to Sherman Alexie winner of this year’s Pen/Faulkner award for Fiction for his title War Dances! The Pen/Faulkner Award is a national prize which honors the best published works of fiction by American citizens in a calendar year. It is the largest peer-juried award in the country with one winning writer and four finalists chosen from more than 300 annually submitted works. War Dances is a collection of stories, poems, and question and answer sequences in which Alexie confronts fatherhood, race, class, and sexuality in his piercing in-your-face style. Alexie is an astute observer and his stories are tragicomedies that reveal the triumphs and tragedies within Native American life. Whether his stories are amusing or bittersweet, they are always beautifully poignant and thought provoking.
While you are exploring War Dances, check out the four finalist writers and their wonderful titles: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Lorraine Lopez’s Homicide Survivors Picnic, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor. Each would make a great summer read happy reading!
I was entranced by Atchafalaya Houseboat: My years in the Louisiana swamp. Calvin Voisin and author Gwen Roland transform an old building into a houseboat and launch it into the Atchafalaya River Basin Swamp. They live simply, work hard and make some special friendships in eight years on Bloody Bayou. Roland’s spare, beautiful account of their experience is accompanied by C.C. Lockwood's lovely black-and-white photographs, originally published in National Geographic magazine. This is an example of sustainable living in a world much different from Kalamazoo--although with the heat and humidity of this week, maybe you could begin to imagine the feeling!
Atchafalaya Houseboat: My years in the Louisiana swamp
Author Carolyn Marsden’s latest novel, Take Me with You is set in an Italian town in the years closely following WWII.
Raised in an Italian orphanage, a young, bi-racial girl named Susanna and her best friend, Pina, want to be adopted (or, better yet, reclaimed by the parents who left them there as much younger girls), but fear being separated, as each considers the other her BFF and her OFF (only friend forever).
The book’s jacket says “Set in Naples, Italy; Take Me with You is a lyrical novel that follows the friendship of two girls and touches on the themes of identity and the meaning of home.”
I picked this novel up on the new books cart recently, started to scan it, and couldn’t put it down. Both Susanna and Pina, now bridging on their teen years, are desperate to discover their true parentage. Pina’s mother does live nearby, but has built her “new” life around her new family, and that family doesn’t include Pina. Heartbroken, Pina turns to Susanna, who has just learned that her father, an African American serviceman, will be coming to “claim” her and take her to America and a new home. Susanna is torn…between being unsure of her future and her concern for her friend. The novel’s ending could suggest a sequel because the girls’ futures are left open and unsettled.
While the main characters in this novel are female, it would make a good historical fiction read for anyone. This could even be a good classroom read-aloud.
Take Me with You
Suppose an uncle who supposedly died in the London Blitz appeared out of nowhere, and told you he had been locked inside an Irish prison for the last 30 years, for a crime he didn’t commit? That’s the beginning of this thriller by British author Robert Goddard, and in Goddard’s world, there are unforseen twists and turns aplenty.
The story begins in 1976, when young Stephen Swan’s 68 year old uncle Eldritch shows up in England, claiming to have been wrongly accused of spying. Now ill, Eldritch persuades Stephen to try and help him track down a missing Picasso painting, worth an untold fortune to the family who owned it prior to World War II. The story alternates between Stephen’s narration in 1976, and Eldritch’s story, set in the 1940’s, when he was a cocky young man involved in profitable but somewhat shady activities. Secrets buried in the past are affecting current generations, and Eldritch hopes to right old wrongs.
This story of espionage and suspense kept me guessing until the final pages. Give Goddard a try if you like well written historical mysteries, with plenty of action and atmosphere.
A Long Time Coming: a novel
On some best fiction of 2009 list, I read that Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, is a realistic depiction of New York City street life in the summer of 1974. I spent time in New York in the late 60’s, so I was intrigued. When I started reading, I didn’t know Let the Great World Spinhad won the 2009 National Book Award, and I hadn’t seen Man on Wire, which I finally viewed midway through the book.
I didn’t predict McCann’s writing would take my breath away as effectively as Philippe Petit’s high wire walk between the twin towers---the book’s centerpiece---would. Petit's treacherous walk 106 stories above the streets of New York is like the hub of a wheel, and the spokes radiating out…or in this case down….are some dozen lives captured stunningly by McCann. The book really isn’t about Philippe Petit, but he is the lynchpin, and without him and his feat, the voices and dramas of beautifully rendered characters would have no stage. Stories of a street priest, his soulful brother, junkies, prostitutes, artists, grieving mothers, computer hackers, a judge, orphaned babies and their caretaker, and others stand alone, intersect, and stand alone again, each an element in the writer’s profound patchwork.
Some critics say Let the Great World Spin is a precursor to the devastating events to come….as though Petit’s walk and the collapse of the twin towers were fateful bookends. McCann has a personal connection to the 9/11 tragedy, and healing is one of a kaleidoscope of themes. As allegory, the book resonates well beyond its time and place. As a novel of 1970’s New York, it is a multi-dimensional snapshot, suspended in time, of an era gone by.
Let the Great World Spin
Last weekend I planted a vegetable garden in my backyard. This is my first attempt at gardening, so I have no idea if I have a green thumb or not. I hope it’s the latter, but rather than just hoping for a green thumb, I spent a good amount of time researching gardening techniques before I began planting.
As a beginning gardener, I felt overwhelmed by many of the gardening books I read during my research. Most of them contained so much information that I was intimidated and didn’t know how to begin. Luckily I discovered Mother Earth News, an organic gardening magazine that provided me with the information and confidence I needed to get started. Mother Earth News covers a wide variety of subjects for gardeners, in a format that is concise and easy to digest. Articles include information about everything from growing vegetables to raising chickens to investing in renewable energy sources. There’s just enough instruction in the articles to help you succeed, but not so much to be overwhelming. I feel sure that with the knowledge I’ve gained and a little hard work, I’ll have a good harvest this year.
Mother Earth News is available at our Central and Oshtemo branches. I highly recommend it for both beginners and gardeners with experience.
mother earth news
In his new book, correctly subtitled – A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier presents a lucid and intelligent, if not a bit nostalgic, critic of the current state of the internet and namely all of the collaborative, groupthink technology that has come to be known by the sweeping title of Web 2.0. In You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier argues that these technologies and thus the ways that we use and even think about the internet have the potential to become “locked-in” and tragically unchangeable going forward. Why is that bad you ask? Lanier, who may look like a complete hippy but is far from a Luddite and has worked at the forefront of the digital technology since the wild and wholly 90’s, argues that those who now run the computer industry and thus design how the net is build and used ultimately value the logic of machines over the intelligence and creativity of human beings and that much of the 2.0 technology is ultimately dehumanizing and brings out the worst in human behavior (spend time in any anonymous online forum to easily find evidence of this), watering down our creativity, spirituality, and culture into a big grey collective goop. It would take someone a whole lot smarter than me to know if Lanier is right or not, but his argument is well constructed and I believe anyone interested in technology and modern life will enjoy reading this.
You Are Not A Gadget
The Oshtemo Book Group has had a wonderful year of discussions about a variety of books. We ended the 2009-10 season with a “Readers Choice” roundtable where everyone could share a book they particularly enjoyed.
Not surprisingly, each book mentioned was a top favorite of the reader, and we all added that title to our “must read” list.
We were surprised that so many of the titles fell under the “historical fiction” category, but not all. There were several nonfiction books and a Pulitzer Prize winner as well.
So if you are looking for a good summer read you might want to check out the following titles:
- Winter Garden, Kristin Hannah
- Day after Night, Anita Diamant
- Left to Tell, Immaculee Ilibagiza
- Night Fall and Wild Fire, Nelson DeMille
- Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
- Dogs of Bedlam Farms, Jon Katz
- Enchantment, Orson Scott Card
- Heat: an amateur's adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany, Bill Buford
- Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
- Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean
- Stitches, David Small
- Nineteenth Wife, David Ebershoff
- Making Rounds with Oscar, David Dosa
- Little Bee, Chris Cleave
Oshtemo Book Group