Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

Apocalyptic Childhood

Did you watch The Day After, the made for TV movie about nuclear war where bombs were dropped on Kansas City and the surrounding area?  It aired on November 20, 1983 and almost 100 million people watched.  I remember there being so much hype and at age 15, I was one of those millions watching. 

So when I ran across The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, a memoir by Steven Church, I was transported back to the early eighties.  I also thought about my wife's family who were living in Topeka, Kansas at the time, especially her brother who is fascinated by apocalyptic visionaries like John Brown and creates apocalyptic landscapes in many of his works of art. 

Steven Church covers John Brown and many end of the world 70's and 80's movies as he reports on the atmosphere he grew up in while in Lawrence, Kansas and what it was like for "the end" to be filmed in his town when he was a kid. 

I sent a copy of the book to my brother-in-law and then took the library's copy on an almost 5000 mile road trip with my family.  It was the perfect book for my trip, because we would be making a stop in Lawrence, Kansas to visit some of my wife's old high school friends and because a 5000 mile trip with four kids can feel apocalyptic at times. 

I talked with one of my wife's friends about the book and the movie and he said that the movie terrified him and he is glad that his kids aren't growing up with the threat of nuclear war hanging over them as much as it was for us.  I remember being disappointed by the movie, finding it slightly boring and melodramatic.  The nuclear war threat just never seemed real to me and I didn't loose much sleep over it as a child. 

How was it for you?  Read Steven Church's memoir and see what memories it brings back for you.


The Day After the Day After
Steve S

A Beautiful Place to Die

One of the great things about fiction is the wonderful variety of places and times where you can be transported. I recently listened to Mala Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die and was instantly taken to apartheid South Africa in the 1950s.

A white police captain has been murdered in the small town of Jacob’s Rest, on the border of Mozambique and South Africa. Sent to investigate is Detective Emmanuel Cooper, and he is immediately resented as an outsider from the big city of Johannesburg. Cooper has to cope with an understaffed local police department and officers from Special Branch with their own political agenda, not to mention residents with secrets of their own.

As much a glimpse of apartheid as it is a mystery, this is a promising beginning to a planned series for South African born author Nunn. If you listen to the CD version, the reader does an excellent job, and I guarantee you will be pulled right into the story.


A Beautiful Place to Die


Two of the titles that I’m currently reading are “adapted” from popular blogs, and that has me thinking about this unquestionably modern publishing trend. Both books are taken from humorous sites, but there are abundant examples of the blog-to-book phenomenon and each with its own unique path to publication in meatspace. Bike Snob: systematically & mercilessly realigning the world of cycling is from the site BikesnobNYC and offers a witty opinionated (does it even make sense to describe a blog opinionated?) and often hilarious critique of all things bicycle and bike culture and while the authors sarcastic tone translates fine to the printed page, the content seems more stretched, slightly less edgy, and more like a series of essay’s than the stream of consciousness feel that the blog has. The other title Stuff My Dad Says (title has been sanitized in recognition of the diverse sensibilities and potential all-ages audience of the KPL blog) comes from Justin Halpern’s Twitter feed of the same name which published the profane, grouchy, but sort of Zen quips of Halpern’s 74 year old father. Reading the Twitter feed often left one wondering about the real relationship between Halpern and his father and the book expands beyond what is possible in 140 characters per post twitter formant and clarifies Halpern’s genuine love for his painfully social filter-less father.
The examples of blog-to-book are numerous, with the most famous and probably the most lucrative thus far coming from Julia and Julia: my year of cooking dangerously which not only gained popularity in book form, but went into hyper-popularity with its adaptation into a Hollywood movie. There is also the gritty and frightening My War: Killing Time in Iraq, from Colby Buzzel’s blog written while serving in the army in Iraq in 2004. Or the hilariously voyeuristic entertainment of Passive aggressive notes: painfully polite and hilariously hostile writings, and just plain aggressive and Cake Wrecks: when professional cakes go hilariously wrong. I’m not sure what the blog-to-book phenomenon means exactly, but I am enjoying the two titles that I’m reading. As a book fan I’m encouraged that great writing continues to get commodified through the printed page and as a blog reader I’m pleased that some of this great content can find its way into the traditional collections of libraries and expand its potential reading audience.


Bike Snob systematically and mercilessly realigning the world of cycling

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had

Dit is disappointed to learn that the new postmaster’s child is a girl, not a boy, as he’d been led to expect. The whole town of Moundville, Alabama is surprised that the newcomers to town are black. Emma, the postmaster’s daughter, is as different from Dit as she could be – smart, well-read, a very thoughtful only child. Dit is a white boy from a family of twelve. He loves to fish, play baseball, skip stones, and hunt. How could they ever be friends?

Despite their differences, Dit and Emma each learn from the other, and they develop a close friendship. Together, they witness a horrific, unthinkable incident and learn more about how different ‘justice’ is for ‘coloreds,’ than it is for white folks in 1917 Alabama. The two devise a courageous plan to alter the course of justice. 

Kristin Levine is a fabulous storyteller. This book kept me up late at night, turning pages and reading ‘just one more chapter.’ You know the deal. It's her first novel, and I hope we may look forward to many more.


The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had

Trying to be debt-free and stress-free

 Less is more. That statement can be true when it comes to spending less money and saving more! I’m always keeping my eye out for great financial self help books to cross my path at the library. I usually walk away with at least a couple tips and tricks to help me keep my spending and saving in check. The Cheapskate Next Door The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means does just that. Author Jeff Yeager traveled the country visiting self proclaimed Cheapskates and learning their secrets. While some of the suggestions he learned are way out of my reach, like cleaning one’s own septic tank, many suggestions from the cheapskates of America are easy lifestyle changes that can add up big over the years, for example driving a manual transmission car over an automatic. The book focuses on 16 attitudes that most cheapskates have about money that enable them to live a debt free, happy life. The author makes too many references to his previous book in my opinion, but overall, his message comes through. Yeager makes a point to mention that most of the cheapskates he met are avid readers that always use their public library! Check it out and see if you fit the cheapskate profile!


The Cheapskate Next Door The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means

Jill L

Extra Lives

Earlier this year, film critic Roger Ebert ignited a minor internet firestorm by suggesting that video games can never be art (in a Sun-Times piece titled, appropriately, “Video Games Can Never Be Art”). Eventually he backed off, but this isn't the first time Ebert has made this claim and he's got plenty of company in his opinion. Ever since the first Pac-Man slithered his way out of the primordial pixel soup, critics have argued about the cultural significance of video games, usually with both sides agreeing to disagree. Enter journalist and author Tom Bissell, whose book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter provides another look at the love/hate relationship we have with games. Based on a series of essays and interviews that appeared in the Guardian, Kill Screen, The New Yorker and others, Extra Lives is both a passionate defense and a sharp critique of video game culture.

One of the strengths of Extra Lives is the way it calls out the shortcomings of popular games while at the same time celebrating the parts that make them so rewarding. Bissell’s descriptions of the making of Resident Evil, a monumentally stupid and yet utterly thrilling game, are some of the best of the book. Bissell also examines what makes storytelling so difficult in a medium like video games, and why we’re unlikely to see a video game with a first-class storyline (and why that may not be a bad thing). Moreover, he does all of this with passion and humor that rises above the often dopey subject matter. This frequently involves personal narratives that help reinforce his point: one of the most engrossing essays focuses on Bissell’s time spent living in Estonia and playing Grand Theft Auto IV while simultaneously becoming addicted to cocaine. Bissell doesn’t shy away from the gory details, and the comparisons between the repetitive nature of the game and the eternal quest for the bigger high are horrifying.

While this collection of essays could probably be more accurately subtitled “Why Video Games Matter to Tom Bissell”, he nevertheless provides a thoughtful look at why video games are so fascinating and infuriating to so many others. Even if you have no interest in games, Extra Lives is worth a read for Bissell’s unique insights on the medium.


Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter
Stewart F.


I was excited to see that Mark Haddon had written a new book but was rather surprised to find that it was heading for the children’s department.  I am a fan of Haddon’s adult fiction works The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (a past Reading Together selection) and his less acclaimed Spot of Bother.  It isn’t uncommon for authors to cross genres and audiences and I decided it was worth giving Haddon’s latest book, Boom!, a read.

In the book’s introduction I learned that it was originally published in 1992 under the title Gridzbi Spudvetch!.  Haddon jokingly states that only twenty-three people bought this difficult to pronounce title.  At the time it was first published, Haddon had not received his notoriety so it isn’t all that surprising that the author and his publishers decided to update, rename and republish this book.

Boom! is the story of two young friends who find themselves in a life-changing misadventure after bugging their school faculty’s staff room.  Overhearing a conversation between two teachers in a secret language, the boys’ curiosity is piqued.  They boost their spy skills to a new level in order to find out what their teachers are up to only to find that they are now the ones being targeted!  As the plot unfolds with amusing and lively twists and turns, the boys find that the “evaluation” they are receiving might be out of this world!    I’ll leave the rest for you to discover.

The book is both humorous and fun.  While I believe that Haddon’s writing skills have improved in his more recent works, I found that his knack for character development is his talent and true foundation.  If you’ve read his other novels, you know that no one writes an innocent, naïve character better than Mark Haddon.  It’s easy and fun to get lost in his work.



Happy Birthday Agatha Christie!

Agatha Christie’s 120th birthday will be celebrated by fans this coming September 15. I decided to do some research and look up a biography about her using the Library’s research database Literature Resource Center. The source cited on Literature Resource Center for Christie’s biography is Contemporary Literary Criticism Select.

The celebrated detective novelist and playwright was born in Torquay, England in 1890. “The Grand Dame of mysteries” studied piano and voice in Paris before she served as a nurse in World War I. Her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920 was written during lulls in her work as a response to a challenge from her sister. It was the beginning of her series with famous character Hercule Poirot. Interestingly, it was rejected by six publishers before it was purchased for twenty-five pounds.
Christie lived a relatively quiet life and produced nearly one hundred mysteries. Her substantial body of works also includes romances, short stories, plays and poems, however. I encourage you to check out our Library catalog for works by Christie and also check out a dedicated website to her Happy reading!


Murder on the Orient Express: A Hercule Poirot Mystery

The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing

When I picked up The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, the memoir of veteran bluesman David Honeyboy Edwards, I was expecting to read the story of a person, a living legend, one of the last of the original Mississippi Delta bluesmen. But what I got instead was a story of a people—a first-hand glimpse at life in rural America during and after the Great Depression. That was a pleasant surprise.

Edwards paints a captivating portrait of the way life was… for himself and for others. His stories are brutally honest and refreshingly candid. “That song, about the ‘killin’ floor,’ that mean they got you so down you can’t do nothing for yourself. I been there! That was some bad times back when I was a boy.”

His name might not be a household word... like say Muddy Waters or BB King, nor does Edwards claim to be a “father of the blues” like some of his contemporaries. But he was certainly there... right in the middle when it all began; sharecropping in Mississippi, jumping freights with Big Joe Williams, gambling with Little Walter, playing the juke joints and barrelhouses with Sunnyland Slim, fishing and hanging around with Elmore James, hitching rides and playing small town whiskey houses with Big Walter Horton and Sonny Boy Williamson, recording for Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress. Edwards even claims that he was drinking with Robert Johnson the night he was poisoned.

And then there was Chicago in the ‘50s – “Everybody was in Chicago by then,” says Edwards. He found himself playing with the likes of Magic Sam, Big Walter, Junior Wells, Elmore James, and Kansas City Red.

Edwards just celebrated his 95th birthday on June 28th, “ of our last living links to the roots of the music,” says Josh Hathaway of Verse Chorus Verse. He’s the “real deal” …and he’s still at it. Edwards will be in Chicago on August 31st, and has dates booked well into 2011 as part of “Blues at the Crossroads: The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts” —you can catch him on that tour in Ann Arbor on February 10.

“The blues is something that leads you,” says Edwards. “I’d always follow it. I’d get up and go wherever it took me. And everywhere the blues took me was home.”


The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing

Infinitely Fascinating

There are great writers who harbor brilliant minds but whose works of poetry and fiction reside at the margins of my reading interests or framed another way, these sort of books achieve critical success in pushing art and its ideas forward yet fail to capture my willingness and attention, a prerequisite for engaging any kind of complex work of literature, especially when that book is almost 1100 pages long. One can always appreciate from afar the contributions of an artist who expands our intellectual grasp of what it means to be human while not delving into their work with the sort of zeal that a fan would.

I could spend all day reading about David Foster Wallace or watching the few interviews and public readings that are available on the internet. He was a larger than life sort of writer, who sadly passed away in 2008 at the age of 46. He had both his admirers and his critics, as do all great writers who make a cannonball like splash in the publishing world. His most well known and critically lauded work, Infinite Jest (1996), is a magisterial novel that firmly cemented him as a sort of Kurt Cobain of the literature world.

I’ve been reading a new book of interviews that Wallace gave just at the moment that Infinite Jest brought him notoriety. Wallace possessed a dazzling and erudite mind that is captured here as he discusses a wide range of topics. His quick wit, wildly learned analyses and self-deprecating views on his recent celebrity, along with intimate discussions regarding his battle with depression will help the novice reader understand this key writer prior to engaging his novels and essays or will provide his already established fans with greater insights into his life and works. Here is a clip of Wallace talking to Charlie Rose sometime during the late nineties.


Although of course you end up becoming yourself : a road trip with David Foster Wallace
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