Staff Picks: Books

Staff-recommended reading from the KPL catalog.

Prepare for fall movie releases with summer reading...

Film adaptations of three recent novels and one middle school classic are scheduled for release this fall. Why not take advantage of summer reading season to read, or perhaps re-read, the books that have inspired these upcoming movies:

The Giver by Lois Lowry - August 15 release

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - October 3 release

The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks - October 17 release

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins - November 21 release


Gone Girl
Karen S

Who Did It?

About twenty years ago, I stumbled on a documentary called Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It told the story of the investigation into the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent conviction of three teenagers, casting doubt on whether the teenagers were guilty of murder or just guilty of wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, and enjoying horror films. 

Over the years, the documentary filmmakers who made the original Paradise Lost have produced two other films:  Paradise Lost: Revelations and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. These documentaries and other information about the case convinced some high profile people like: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson to lobby for the release of these teenagers.
After a bizarre plea deal, they were released on August 19, 2011 after serving over eighteen years for crimes they possibly didn’t commit.

Now, Damien Echols, who was on death row for those eighteen years, tells his story in Life After Death. Watch the documentaries and read his book and decide who you believe.


Life After Death 


Steve S

A Fan's Ultimate Guide to Wes Anderson

If I was forced into compiling a list of my favorite film directors, Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom) would be number five or six, perhaps even four given my mood. Regardless, he’s one of my go-to directors when I want to laugh, cry (well, not really) and be intellectually moved and artistically impressed. So I was pleased as punch to find out that a new, beautifully conceived book about Anderson and his singular cinematic vision was coming out this winter. The coffee table-sized book is a kitchen-sink assortment of analysis, interviews, and references to those touchstones which have inspired the director. The Wes Anderson Collection is a fan’s must-have tome. You can view a Q and A with the author here.


The Wes Anderson Collection

Far From the Tree

It took me almost a whole year to read through Andrew Solomon’s deeply moving book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. One reason is because it is so long (over 700 pages) and the other is because it was a little bit popular among Kalamazoo residents so I would have it for three weeks and then return it to fill a hold and get it back several weeks later. I don’t think this was a bad way to experience this book. It is so dense and at times emotionally draining, it was good to move slowly and take some time off.

Through interviews with parents, Solomon explores the lives of families coping with children with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities; and with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, and who are transgender. The summary in our catalog describes the book as, “elegantly reported by a spectacularly original thinker, Far from the Tree explores themes of generosity, acceptance, and tolerance--all rooted in the insight that love can transcend every prejudice. This crucial and revelatory book expands our definition of what it is to be human.”

Do not be put off by the size of the book. If you just can’t get yourself to take on a project that big, the chapters stand mostly alone so you could pick and choose what you wanted to read. Also, just reading the introduction is highly satisfying, as you encounter more compelling and fascinating ideas than most whole books.

In the chapter on transgender children, Solomon mentions a documentary titled Prodigal Sons that was made by one of the subjects of that chapter. I was delighted to see that the library owned a copy and I highly recommend it.


Far From the Tree 

Steve S

50th Anniversary of JFK Assassination

I was born in Washington D.C. four days after JFK was killed. As a result I always felt an affinity for, and curiosity about, Kennedy.

I was especially moved when my father and I had the chance to visit the 6th Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. We went to Dallas together on the last major trip my father took before he died. We watched TV clips of pivotal moments in Kennedy’s presidency. We looked out of the window from which the shots were fired, onto the white painted “X” on Elm Street marking the spot where Kennedy was struck dead. Dad told me about how he felt, living in D.C., expecting a new baby to the family, while memorial events for the fallen president were taking place.

After the museum, Dad and I went for dinner at a delicious Mexican restaurant nearby. As we were finally leaving downtown, we got a little turned around and drove down a few different streets before finding the exit onto the freeway. I felt chills when I realized-- just as we were clearly headed in the right direction-- that I was driving right over the fatal spot, the painted “X” on Elm Street.

As the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination approaches, you may wish to revisit that time, explore something new about Kennedy’s administration or ponder the controversies surrounding his death. We’ve got so much you can read, view and hear.

Where were you? America Remembers the JFK Assassination


March on Washington

August 28th will be the 50th Anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” This past weekend, tens of thousands of people marched on Washington, in commemoration of the event.

I looked for information at KPL about the 1963 march and what was happening here in Kalamazoo during that time. I found writings on the history and significance of the March on Washington, biographies of prominent march organizers such as A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and other civil rights workers, a video recording of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.



Local civil-rights events in 1963 included the picketing of the Van Avery drugstore and the October 6 Kalamazoo March for Equal Opportunities. To learn more local events the year ca. 300,000 people were marching in D.C. for jobs and freedom, visit KPL’s Local History desk. We have numerous files of newspaper clippings and microfilm access to the 1963 Kalamazoo Gazette.


The march on Washington : jobs, freedom, and the forgotten history of civil rights

One Eagle Scout’s Story

In 2011, Zach Wahls’ speech to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee was posted online and went viral, where it gleaned over 17 million hits on YouTube. For those who’d like to hear more from this promising young activist, you can read his book, My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family.

Wahls, an Eagle Scout, was raised -- in a home steeped in family values, discussing morals at the dinner table—by two moms. In his book, Wahls breaks down the Boy Scout motto, law, oath and slogan, giving concrete examples of how his family exemplified values in each of those codes and what he learned from the Boy Scouts about living out those values. He also gives a moving account of his mother, Terry’s, struggle with MS, and how her illness and triumphs over her condition impacted the whole family. In general, we see a family sharing love and struggles, as all families do. This family’s parents ultimately earned the legal right to marry in their home state, partly due to Zach Wahls’ inspiring speech on the Iowa legislative floor.

The library has other materials by, and/or for, children of gay or lesbian parents, and their parents. If you don’t find what you are looking for, please ask!



My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength and What Makes a Family

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again

With fuzzy memories of the film version of the original book by Ian Fleming, and having read and enjoyed some other titles by Frank Cottrell Boyce, I was excited to hear about the new book based on the eponymous magical flying car. In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, Chitty is manifested in a 1966 camper van purchased by Mum, beautifully restored by recently unemployed Dad and son Jem. The Tooting family also includes older sister Lucy and Little Harry, both important characters in the plot.

I really enjoyed Boyce's new book and so I went back to Fleming's original and the movie musical version. They're both so much fun in their own special ways. This new installment in the Chitty franchise is as different from the 1968 Albert R. Broccoli movie adaptation as that movie was from Ian Fleming's original. They all take off from the real-life legend of Count Zborowski's 1920 custom built chain-drive super-fast race car in one way or another, however. And while Fleming didn't live to see the MGM film production or the publication of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, his only title written for children, Fleming clearly had a great imagination beyond Bond. You can enjoy them all at KPL. I think I can safely say that I Geek Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!


Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again





From Somalia’s nomads to the Cat Walk

Desert Flower is a true story of a young woman’s journey from the Somali desert to the cat walk in New York City. I think most of us would assume this story is about a past practice and we would like to think that what happened to Waris would no longer happen to young women in any country, but we need to be aware that the archaic customs of the past are still very much a plague to the young women of Somalia. The purpose of Waris Dirie’s book Desert Flower was to raise a loud cry to violence, genital mutilation, and arranged marriages. For a few goats and camels elderly men can arrange a marriage to prepubescent girls. Waris felt that she needed to do something to stop the useless suffering of the young women of her country. Waris’ book tells of a little girl trapped as a Desert Nomad, a daughter to be bartered and a strikingly beautiful model. In the movie Liya Kebede does a beautiful job of taking us on Waris’ journey and helping us to see the turbulence a past practice causes.


Desert Flower


Toast, the movie is based on Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, a memoir penned by Nigel Slater, a famous British food writer, journalist and broadcaster. This film originally appeared in limited distribution in 2011 with little fanfare or notice. It basically came and went, but not before eliciting positive reviews from The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times among others. It’s short stint in theatres resulted in its being released to DVD very quickly; a benefit to all fine movie fans.

It’s a bittersweet, sometimes comic story of Nigel’s childhood. He is portrayed as a young child by Oscar Kennedy and later as a teen by Freddie Highmore. Nigel is somewhat of a square-peg-in-a-round-hole-world sort of youth who is seriously obsessed with food and cooking. Unfortunately for him, his family happens to be acutely cuisine challenged. Mum may be saintly and loving, but her piece de resistance dish is a finely grilled piece of white bread toast. Standard evening fare at the Slater household consists of canned offerings that are prepared by boiling the unopened tins in water to heat up the contents. Nigel finds these culinary practices to be quite appalling and constantly begs, cajoles and eggs his mother on to show him how to cook properly, i.e. from scratch. While his mother tries to accommodate his wishes, she ultimately cannot, succumbing to a serious asthma condition. After her death, his rather intolerable and grouchy businessman father, played by Ken Stott, hires Mrs. Potter as the family’s cleaning lady and cook. Soon dad’s passions are inflamed and Nigel is aghast as he openly woos the housekeeper.

Following a rather speedy, and a somewhat surreptitious courtship (Mrs. Potter happens to be inconveniently married to Mr. Potter at the time), a wedding takes place. In the aftermath, the visibly more exuberant and cheerful father chooses to move the frail, newly minted family unit to a quiet countryside locale. Nigel despises the chain smoking Mrs. Potter, (played brilliantly by the versatile Helena Bonham Carter), despite the fact that she turns out very good meals, which everyone knows is a sure way to a man’s heart. And that’s where the problem lies as both Nigel and Mrs. Potter compete for Nigel’s dad’s affections by bettering each other in the cooking department. Mrs. Potter has a slight edge, but because of this she also tends to overfeed her new hubby, and this ultimately leads to his untimely demise. Nigel finally leaves this less than idyllic country setting and finds work as a chef’s assistant at London’s posh Savoy Hotel. He also stubbornly pledges to never see or speak to Mrs. Potter again; a promise he supposedly keeps.

With Dusty Springfield’s husky voice and music as a backdrop to the action, this movie is quite a little gem. It was directed by S.J. Clarkson and is highly recommended for gourmands, as well as connoisseurs of coming of age stories and all British movie buffs.

Note: The Kalamazoo Public Library only carries Nigel Slater’s memoir in book form as of the time of this writing. The movie DVD will be made part of the collection shortly.


Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger
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