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Staff Picks: Books

Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza

You think you like pizza? Colin Hagendorf likes pizza. Middle-aged, crusty punk Colin likes pizza so much, in fact, that in August 2009, he set out to eat a slice of cheese pizza from every single pizzeria in Manhattan, and in the process started the blog Slice Harvester. This book is a record of his pizza adventures over the course of two years and nearly 400 pizza slices, good and bad (frequently bad). Along the way, he meets the third-generation Italian owner of one of NYC's best pizza joints, eats pizza with celebrities, drinks, fights, and reevaluates his existence. More than just a pizza travelogue or simple list of reviews, Slice Harvester is warts-and-all memoir of some very bad behavior and questionable decision-making. If you like your pizza topped with attitude, sarcasm, and a dash of self-loathing, take this one home today!

Far From the Tree(1)

I was trying to think of a book that I could recommend for LGBTQ Pride Month and my mind keeps going back to a deeply moving book I read a few years ago by Andrew Solomon called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Most of the book is not about LGBTQ issues, but Solomon’s research and empathetic voice helps bring awareness and appreciation for the view point of many different kinds of people, which is a major goal of Pride Month.

Through interviews with parents, Solomon explores the lives of families raising 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 this 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.

Prisoners of Geography

This 2015 book, subtitled Ten Maps That Explain Everything about the World, is praised by Newsweek as a work that 'shows how geography shapes not just history but destiny.' The ten maps and the discussion of each conveniently take up ten chapters: Russia, China, United States, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and The Arctic. The discipline of geopolitics gets a very good airing here, with answers by British author Tim Marshall to such questions as: 1) Why will America never be invaded?, 2) What does it mean that Russia must have a navy, but also has frozen ports six months out of the year?, 3) How does this affect Putin's treatment of the Ukraine?, 4) How is China's future constrained by geography?, 5) Why is Tibet destined to lose its autonomy?, and 6) Why will Europe never be united? The physical aspects of the world's nations are a major factor in determining the conduct of international relations even in this modern age. Historical yet current, this book is a rich source for understanding the world scene in the 21st century and the background to its development.

The Story of Kullervo

My enduring interest in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and my Finnish ancestry are two aspects of my life I never had reason to believe would ever cross in any significant fashion. Browsing the shelves, I recently discovered The Story of Kullervo (ed. Verlyn Flieger), an unfinished prose version of what is known as the Kullervo cycle, which originally appeared in the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala.   

Tolkien set to work on the The Story of Kullervo as an undergraduate studying at Exeter College, Oxford in 1914. The original story is a tragic tale of an unfortunate orphan boy, raised by his father's killer, and centered around themes of magic, betrayal, and vengeance. Tolkien, having first read an English-translated copy of The Kalevala in 1907 while a student at King Edward’s School, found the Kullervo cycle particularly captivating. Claiming the translated version to be unsatisfactory, he set to learning Finnish in order to engage the original source material, an effort which he declared left him “repulsed with heavy losses.”

Nonetheless, he remained thoroughly interested in crafting his own version of the tale, and in The Story of Kullervo, the earliest versions of many of the themes, naming conventions, and story elements of his later works can be seen. Close students of Tolkien’s books, and those published after his death by his son, Christopher Tolkien, will find plenty to enjoy here.

Being an unfinished work, it is a quick read, but editor Verlyn Flieger has supported the story deftly with insightful analyses of what is known of Tolkien’s early efforts, the source materials he used, and additional influences on his literary style. The bibliography is substantial, drawing upon all the sources one would suspect, along with scholarly journals, monographs, and at least one PhD dissertation. Indeed, Flieger’s bibliography amounts to a well-curated ‘further reading’ list and chances are if you are investigating this book, ‘further reading’ is exactly the sort of thing that interests you.

Some Assembly Required(1)

In this captivating and honest memoir, Arin Andrews tells his story of being born in the wrong body. Growing up trapped in the body of a girl, knowing it didn't feel right, Arin struggles with his Christian school, living in the bible belt, and trying to bridge the rift between he and his mom, as he transitions from Emerald to Arin. This book is wonderfully written. Arin's voice is familiar, though I've never met him, and he tells his truth to the open reader.

Puppets from some of everything!

 To say that Ashley Bryan has been around for many years is an understatement. After all, he is only 92. His work has been recognized by many and he has been the recipient of many awards. The book Ashley Bryan’spuppets: making something from everything is not only full of amazing, clever and unique puppets but also full of great and thoughtful prose.        

Ashley Bryan grew up in NYC during the depression. He and his sister started salvaging for things they could reuse at a young age. He made his first puppet at age eleven. His puppets are made from tangled fishing nets, weathered bones, sea glass, and driftwood….whatever else he can find. He sees possibilities in all things. His characters and poems include Anansi: the trickster and storyteller, Kwesi: conquering strength (who looks like an elephant) and Animata: good character (made of shells and an upside down champagne glass as a crown).

Jojo: his storyteller says:

               In every finger of my glove I tap tall tales of peace and love

               The fingers of my well-gloved hands store stories told in foreign lands. 

I wish I could share every amazing and unique picture. But that would get me into trouble so I will suggest that you read this or one of his other fantastic books and you’ll see what I mean.

Lose Yourself In a Book

As I get older, I retain less and less of what I read. Sometimes I find it hard to even recall storylines or important parts of books from things I’m currently reading when people ask me. However, Rebecca Solnit, a writer I discovered about three years ago, has related stories and created images that have stuck in my mind. Not all she has to say resonates with me, but there has always been something that catches my imagination and carves its message into my not so malleable memory.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, her meditation on different ways of being lost or losing ourselves, I was moved by her description of 16th century Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca’s transformation as he gets lost in Florida and over a decade later arrives in New Mexico and finally meets up with other Spaniards, only to find he has very little in common with them anymore or with who he was ten years before. 

Pick up a Rebecca Solnit book and get lost in it. Somewhere in there you will find a treasure.

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks

   bell hooks' Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood is an odd book. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It focuses on hooks’ childhood, but each brief chapter can be savored as an individual short story. hooks grew up in a home with several sisters and one brother, but feeling like an outsider rather than a member of the family. She was curious about taboo topics like death, race, marriage, sexuality, and gender roles, but she could not discuss these subjects openly with anyone. 

   Only one of her grandmothers and her grandfather understood her. Her parents punished her for talking back, warned her that too much reading would drive her crazy, concerned themselves with her lack of interest in boys, then worried about her interest in the wrong boys, and fretted that she would become “funny” (their word for homosexual). Her sisters disliked and excluded her, and her friendship with her brother dissolved as he matured. Despite these shaky relationships, she found mentorship in a pastor, a teacher, and others who encouraged her to embrace her individuality. Her love of reading also inspired her, and she became a poet, and eventually the famous academic and author the world knows her as today.

 This was the first time I read hooks for leisure instead of as part of an academic assignment, and I sped through Bone Black. This book is a nice entry point to get to know hooks’ character and her writing. Her most notorious work is Killing Rage but I am happy to have read Bone Black first to see how her experiences during childhood contributed to her perspective as an adult.



Weekends with Daisy

Sharron Kahn Luttrell had self-diagnosed CDD (Canine Deficit Disorder) when she chose to volunteer as a weekend puppy raiser for NEADS in their Prison Pup Partnership program. During the week, the puppy, Daisy, was raised and trained by Keith, an inmate dog handler at a nearby prison. On weekends Daisy stayed with Luttrell’s family. Here Sharron gradually introduced Daisy to many experiences she could not get inside the prison as part of Daisy’s training to become a service dog.

Though Luttrell was the puppy’s primary trainer on the weekends, the whole family fell in love with her. Sharon found that her parenting skills and insights grew as she focused on training Daisy. The dog helped her bridge gaps between her and her oldest child, Aviva. Her son, the most eager family member to meet Daisy, accompanied his mom to several of the pup’s training events.

The author illustrated the value of this program to the prisoners who participate. Training the puppies helps them develop a positive relationship with another living being. They have to provide constant care, patience and consistency throughout the week. The experience builds self-esteem for the inmate dog handlers, as they watch the puppies learn and succeed, knowing their efforts will make a difference for someone else, if the puppy becomes a service dog. Luttrell sometimes fantasized about how it would be, if Daisy were to fail the rigorous testing to become a service dog, for as the weekend trainer, her family could have ‘first dibs’ on adopting Daisy. As she grew to know Keith better, however, she became properly motivated to improve Daisy’s weekend training and ensure her success as a service dog. Her motivation came not just because it was the right thing to do, but also because she cared about Keith and wanted his success, too.

Cecil’s Everlasting Roar

When Cecil the lion was killed in July 2015, the event precipitated a huge outpouring of grief, anger and disgust among people from all over the world. Cecil was a protected lion who was lured out of his safe haven, the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, Africa, by native hunting guides for the express purpose of letting Walter Palmer, a Minnesota dentist by vocation and a misguided, self-styled big game hunter by avocation, shoot him dead. Cecil was killed in cold blood only to satisfy an American dentist’s craving to be surrounded by dead animal trophies.
Shortly after the news of Cecil’s demise spread, numerous protests erupted led by conservation groups, animal advocates and just common folks. The anger and sadness resonated and lingered on for more than a month after the careless killing.

However, one positive outcome was a huge surge in donations for animal conservation efforts. Even celebrities such as Jimmy Kimmel spoke out against the senseless slaughter and helped raise over $150,000 to aid preservation. Jane Goodall the world renowned primatologist simply stated, “I have no words to express my repugnance.”

The authors of Cecil’s Pride: The True Story of a Lion King are a father and his two daughters, the Hatkoffs. They wrote this children’s book not to dwell on his sudden and inhumane death, but rather to celebrate through narrative a life that was well lived. Photographs by Cecil’s human friend Brent Stapelkamp, underscore the beauty and fullness of his time on earth. Taken over the course of nine years, Brent, a wildlife researcher, tracked, and documented Cecil as he wandered about in the forests and plains of Hwange Park.

Since lions defend their pride and territory against other lions who challenge them, it was known that Cecil was challenged by a long-time rival named Jericho. They fought to see who would gain control. But when other male lions started moving into their domain, something unusual happened; Cecil and Jericho formed an alliance against the interlopers!

After Cecil’s sudden death, it was feared that Jericho would either abandon or kill Cecil’s cubs to start his own family, which is usually the case when the male head of the pride dies. However, in this case another astonishing turn of events came to be when Jericho took in Cecil’s cubs to raise them as his own.

This is a wonderfully touching true story with vivid photos that proclaims that Cecil’s legacy will live on.

Facts about lions as well as the global impact of Cecil’s death are included. New laws and regulations about illegal hunting of lions as well as other endangered species is a hopeful sign that conservation efforts will improve and protect these majestic animals. But as is usually the case, only time will tell if they still have a chance.