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Staff Picks: Books

Graphic Memoirs

As the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. I love graphic novels –stories told using both pictures and words—because you can glean so much of the emotion and action of the story from the artwork. I recently read two poignant memoirs, which explore the final years of the lives of beloved parents.

In Tangles: A story about Alzheimer’s, my Mother, and Me, the beauty is in the great detail that Sarah Leavitt shares with the reader. Some of the details are frustrating and heartbreaking to read and see, as her mother gradually loses more and more of her capacity to thrive; still, the little daily challenges and special moments shared by family are what make caregiving for an ailing loved one so rewarding.

Joyce Farmer illustrates the final four years of her father and stepmother, Lars and Rachel, in Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir. Her writing and drawing style are much different than Leavitt’s, but again, you feel the full emotion of her experience supporting them in their final years.

I was struck by the role of cats in each of these books. Note p. 192 of Special Exits, where the beloved Siamese cat, Ching, is loving on her “Daddy” so much that he can’t breathe. In five cartoon boxes, author Farmer paints love and affection between cat and human, while deftly illustrating the frailty of her dying father. In Tangles, (p. 65-66) Mom adores Lucy the cat, who  actually wants nothing to do with her. Even though Leavitt admits to feeling some jealousy of her mother’s adoration of the cat, she makes little books with cards and photos about Lucy, which her mom then carries around with her. The picture of the cat hiding under the covers on Mom and Dad’s bed is simple, yet priceless.

We have quite a few other memoirs in our graphic novel collection.


Special Exits: A Graphic Memoir

The Orange Houses

I have not read much in the way of teen novels lately, but did get around to Paul Griffin’s 2010 effort entitled The Orange Houses. It concerns three rather unlikely allies, brought together by various circumstances into a state of friendship. The novel takes place during the course of a little over one month and the stories of these three individuals are told in alternating chapters.

First, there is Tamika, or Mik, who has been partially deaf since childhood. She attends a tough high school and manages to close herself off to the world around her by using her disability as an excuse.

Then there’s Jimmi Sixes, a nineteen year old war veteran, whose girlfriend committed suicide while he was enlisted. He turns to drugs, and despite trying to straighten up his life, his thoughts are regularly interrupted by a nagging question...Is life really worth living? And if so, then at what expense? Although he is Mik’s protective friend, (especially from the bullies she encounters at school), he is nonetheless detested by her mother as being a bad influence.

Finally, there is Fatima, a rather gentle soul who is an illegal immigrant from Africa. She arrives in New York on a ship all alone, with only the clothes on her back. She is looking and hoping for a better future in the United States and longs to see the Statue of Liberty up close. She is also a whiz at making beautiful, folded paper creations that are endearing mementos to those she shares them with.

This novel is a fast moving and absorbing read, ending in a dreadful outcome that the reader will not soon forget. The “orange houses” in the title refers to the projects, where all three characters reside; a place that offers little hope of redemption, where poverty prevails and where life is put on hold. The book made it onto the 2010 list of the best books for teens.

Reading this novel, brought back very fond memories of meeting one of my favorite teen authors, Robert Cormier, who did a book talk at Kent State University in the late 1970s while I attended library school there.

During the mid to late 70s and beyond, Mr. Cormier had written The Chocolate War, published in 1974 and I Am the Cheese, published in 1977, probably his most prominent and attention receiving books that were later made into movies. His other works included Beyond the Chocolate War, Tunes for Bears to Dance To, After the First Death, and Other Bells for Us to Ring.

His novels were famous at the time for their complex intensity. They covered sensitive as well as controversial themes, such as abuse, violence, revenge, betrayal, and conspiracy.

All in all Cormier, who passed away in late 2000, was considered by many experts as a gifted author and a major influence on teen literature. To this day, KPL still owns many of his books in their collection, and if you are not familiar with his writings, whether you are a teen or not, do yourself a favor and check them out.


The Orange Houses

Moving Memoirs

I recently read two books about people living with autism. I found both of them to be moving and insightful.

Now I See the Moon: a mother, a son, a miracle - When Elaine Hall’s adopted son, Neal, was diagnosed with autism, she had a variety of negative emotional responses to the news. Over time, Hall learned not only to accept her son’s condition, but to see and appreciate the very special gifts that her son and other autistic children offer. Hall, who already had experience training child actors, developed a groundbreaking program to engage autistic children in drama and other performing arts.

The Journal of Best Practices David Finch describes, with humor and insight, his own journey of discovering that he has Asperger syndrome. He developed a very systematic process for understanding his condition and improving his relationship with his wife and his children.


The Journal of Best Practices: a memoir of marriage, Asperger syndrome, and one man's quest to be a better husband

Books Behind Bars

 I have been known to make fun of my lawyer friends for reading books about lawyers, so I felt a little self-conscious when I started to read Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. Avi Steinberg’s account of working in a Boston prison library alternates between thoughtful explorations of prisoners’ lives and prison culture and laugh out loud stories involving people he encounters; both guards and inmates.

He starts teaching writing classes in the prison and has one class of women who want to see pictures of the authors before deciding whether they will read her/his book. He decides to incorporate this into his class, passing around a picture and having them write down their impressions of the author and then write down their vote. They like Toni Morrison, think Federico Garcia Lorca is trouble, sense that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a liar, and one woman votes, “Hellzz ya!!,” for Walt Whitman.

Stories like this and accounts of an inmate with a plan to become a TV chef, a pimp writing a memoir, and the time, mid-mugging, Avi and mugger recognize each other makes for a great read.


Running the Books

A DCI Monika Paniatowsky

Sally Spencer’s latest mystery The Ring of Death blew me away! I had no idea who the suspect was until he was revealed. Nor, had I guessed what the ring of death was until D.C.I. Monika Panaitowski walked into it. Sally Spencer did a fantastic job of attaching readers to her British character, DCI Charlie Woodend and now, Monika is following in her beloved boss’s footsteps. In The Ring of Death Monika often asked herself “what would Charlie do?” But, in spite of the twist and turns, oppositions and supporters Monika proved herself to be a topnotch investigator.

I can't wait for Sally Spencer's next DCI Monika Paniatowsky Mystery! The Echoes of the Dead is due out this spring!


The Ring of Death

The Best Books of 2010

Are you wondering what great books you missed reading this year? It’s the time of year when the “Best Of” book lists are compiled and these lists are a wonderful opportunity to check out what titles the reviewers and critics preferred. I always enjoy taking a look through them, and I always end up adding a number of the suggested titles to my reading list.

These lists represent a wide range of reading preferences and offer some great choices to catch up on your reading as winter settles upon us. We even have our own Best of 2010 list here at KPL! Even if the holidays have you hustling and bustling, take a moment to click on these links to NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and to see what all the reading buzz of 2010 is about. Happy Reading!


Staff Picks: Best of 2010

The Problem with “Best Of” Lists

Throughout this year I’ve kept a list of the books that I thought might end up on my Best of 2010 list. A few weeks ago, KPL published the lists that some of our staff members created.

The problem with my list, though, is that I keep adding books to it! The one I added today is Art and Max by David Wiesner. For years, David Wiesner has been creating books that nudge us to step out on a wobbly twig to appreciate the complexities of his artwork. In this new picture book, he nudges us again. Take a look at Art and Max . . . I’m guessing you may be adding to your list, too!


Art and Max

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain

The year 2010 marks several milestones in the life of Mark Twain. November 30, 2010 is the 175th anniversary of his birth. This year also is the 125th  anniversary of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), a book considered by many to be the most important novel in American literature. (Read what some local literary experts recently said about Mark Twain here.)

And this year marks the 100th anniversary of his death on April 27, 1910. When he died, Mark Twain left behind a mountainous autobiography that has only now been published. The author stipulated that his recollections on life could not be printed until 100 years after his death, so that anyone he might offend would be long dead, as would their children.

To the delight and surprise of booksellers everywhere, the four-pound, 500,000 word autobiography is “flying off the shelves,” according to a Nov. 19 story in the New York Times.

The modest 7,500 print run is now up to 300,000. Sales are being driven by scholars and ardent collectors, but also generations of readers whose affection for this most American of authors began when they were introduced to Huckleberry Finn. At last we can know a little better the heart and mind of a fascinating man.



A mother, a boy and Huey Newton

In the summer of 1968 Pa packed up his three daughters and put them on a plane headed for Oakland, California. He wanted his girls to get to know their mother. Cecile had abandoned her children when they were very young. Delphine, the oldest child, took on the parental role for her sisters as if she had been entirely responsible for their every action.

In One Crazy Summer, in the midst of the Black Panther movement, Rita Williams-Garcia does a terrific job of telling a family’s story of discovery. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern set off for the adventure of their lives and not only found out a lot about their mother but they also discovered a lot about themselves.


One Crazy Summer

“The Events of October:” Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus

I was employed at Kalamazoo College in an earlier life so I was particularly interested to read Gail Griffin’s new book which chronicles the horrific deaths of two students on campus in 1999. Griffin’s extensive research introduces us to the people involved, the circumstances of their relationship, and most fascinatingly, the mixed reactions of the campus community during the aftermath.

Through interviews as well as police and campus records, Maggie Wardle and the student who shot her, Neenef Odah, become more than mere subjects in an investigation. I feel as if Maggie was someone I knew. It’s been several days since I finished the book, and indeed I find myself still digesting the story and—because I’m familiar with the campus and with many of the faculty and staff involved—reliving the pain, particularly as the 11th anniversary of the deaths approaches. Griffin, herself, is Parfet Distinguished Professor of English at the College, so her recounting is not wholly impersonal. She was there. And it is that fact that gives us the unique perspective into how the entire campus was affected during the months and years after.

Obviously, this is not an easy story to read, but it was both thought-provoking and fast-moving, and I didn’t want to miss a word.


“The Events of October:” Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus