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Staff Picks: Books

The Immortal Evening

The New York Times Book Review started a feature called “By the Book” a year or two ago. Someone, usually an author, is interviewed about their reading habits. Several of the questions are repeated almost every week like; What is currently on your nightstand?, What book are you embarrassed that you have not read yet?, or What book was a great disappointment to you?

Another one of the recurring questions is: “You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?” I’ve noticed that Mark Twain and Charles Dickens get invited a lot. 

In Stanley Plumly’s, The Immortal Evening, we learn about an actual dinner party involving three literary giants: William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Charles Lamb. The dinner took place on December 28, 1817 at Benjamin Robert Haydon’s house who was working on a painting called Christ’s Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem. Interestingly, in the crowd around Jesus in the painting, Haydon included the likenesses of Wordsworth, Keats, and Lamb. 

If you enjoy poetry and art history, this might be the one for you.

By the way, my answer to the New York Times Book Review question would be: Wallace Stegner, Lorrie Moore, and George Saunders. Who would you invite?

Our Better Angels

How would you react in the face of a disaster that left thousands homeless and wiped out essential city services in Kalamazoo for weeks on end? Rebecca Solnit takes a look at some major disasters over the past century or so and reports on some of the grassroots communities that emerged to provide relief in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell.

Focusing on the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a horrific explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina she reports that government officials and wealthy power brokers have often turned resources towards protecting property and policing the disaster area because of fears that the public’s reaction will be to turn savage and live out some Mad Max survival of the fittest scenario. 

Although there are some people who take advantage of the situation, she finds that there are more people who come together to form impromptu communities to provide relief and comfort for those in need. I enjoyed reading about these temporary utopias that emerge from these disasters and bring out our “better angels.”

No Place to Hide

No matter what your personal opinions on Edward Snowden, or his actions, are; Glenn Greenwald’s account of breaking the Snowden story, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. surveillance state, is gripping stuff. Greenwald, a journalist who has subsequently become synonymous with the Snowden leaks and hasn’t been shy about offering his strong opinion on the blanket NSA surveillance they exposed, spends the first half of No Place to Hide detailing the cloak and dagger story of his first contact with Snowden and the events that led to Greenwald flying to Hong Kong to meet Snowden personally and release the initial secret documents that broke the story worldwide. The second half of the book is devoted to explaining the alphabet soup of secret NSA programs that Snowden’s documents exposed. These surveillance programs effectively try to sweep up and collect all communications and internet activity worldwide and their breadth and depth is downright shocking. Viewed as evidence that we are living under a dangerous surveillance state or proof that our government is fighting terrorism by any means necessary, No Place to Hide is an eye opening and incisive read.

Women who…. Read, Inspire, Lead, Encourage, Motivate, Assist, Teach, Inform

The ladies of the Saturday Eves’ Book Club have been meeting since 1968. They have met together for 45 years and while meeting all have agreed that one of their goals would be to make a difference in Kalamazoo as a group. Another goal was to write a book telling their collective stories. Their accomplishments are numerous. They have a united goal to Read, Inspire, Lead, Encourage, Motivate, Assist, Teach and Inform and their ultimate goal has been to address community issues, mentor children and to take on the challenge of making a real commitment to each other and their communities. This book addresses their individual achievements, life challenges, backgrounds and dedications. There are many great stories in this book that address decades of local and worldly influences and contributions to making this one of the oldest and most influential African American book clubs in Kalamazoo.

The Public Library

Here's a 2014 book on a subject that's close to my heart. It's a 'photographic essay' about the public library, and has quality photographs of a wide variety of libraries, both active and abandoned, around the nation. Interspersed with the pictures are essays by noted authors. One of these I especially like is the essay called 'What the Library Means to Me,' written by author Amy Tan when she was only eight years old. Among others who reflect on the book that Toni Morrison calls 'profound and heartbreakingly beautiful' are Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, and even Dr. Seuss.

From Preschool to Prosperity

How can very young children help Michigan’s economy? Simple. Attend a high-quality preschool.

Really? Really!

Tim Bartik, who is an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research here in Kalamazoo, believes that our economic future can be improved by expanding high-quality early education programs and making sure that all children have the opportunity to participate. Dr. Bartik’s new book, From Preschool to Prosperity, is available as a free download here:

While economics might be a subject that can seem intimidating, if you care about kids in our community please take a look at this book. It’s short, readable, and so very important. Let’s keep working hard in Kalamazoo to make sure that all of our kids have the opportunity to reach their potential. 

Hear an interview with Dr. Bartik on WMUK’s WestSouthwest.

Norway's New Literary Star

But Knausgaard’s book is more abstract than that; it’s about more than the experience of a son. That’s because, in exploring that experience, Knausgaard has ended up exploring all experience. If being a writer is like being a swimmer, and life is like the ocean through which you swim, then Knausgaard’s book starts out being about the waves but ends up being about the stroke.—The New Yorker Magazine’s Joshua Rothman

Conceived as a multi-volume memoir (My Struggle) that possesses elements of fiction, or at the very least, creatively massaged recollections, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard has emerged out of nowhere (i.e. unknown to U.S. readers) to become a literary sensation this year. His books have been compared to Proust’s magnum opus (In Search of Lost Time), his rock star-like visage has graced the pages of countless newspapers, journals and websites and he’s garnered the high praise of critics (James Wood) and fellow writers (Zadie Smith). The meteoric success and media exposure have also brought the inevitable backlashes and petty snark common to our time, with not everyone finding his meticulous descriptions of his life’s struggles worthy of their sustained interest. After reading so much of the hype, I purchased the first volume knowing that I wanted to take my sweet time reading the book and not have to worry about a due date.

First off, this kind of confessional (a term he’s distanced himself from) writing will not appeal to everyone and the length will likely be prohibitive for many but once you embrace his exhaustive commitment to detail (and detail he does) and buy into the elegant simplicity of the prose, you will find the journey rewarding. In volume one, he spends a great deal of time in plumbing the depths of his feelings toward his emotionally cold, alcoholic father, whose presence, even after death, hovers over both the teenage and adult Knausgaard like a menacing specter. As I close in on finishing the first book in the series, I cannot wait to dive into the second book. I still struggle (pun intended) to pinpoint the source of what makes the book work for me but in some strange and beguiling way, it does and maybe that’s the point, that in everyday life, the roots of transcendent storytelling are masked in ordinary toil.

Mind your own business (AKA the story of Brann's)

Growing up in Grand Rapids in the 80s and 90s, my family's "fancy" restaurant to go to was the Brann's restaurant on S. Division Ave. I would get the economizer prime rib special and a Shirley Temple to drink. Now living in the Kalamazoo area, my husband and I take our kids to the Brann's near Crossroads Mall/Celebration Cinema. With 11 locations across Michigan, Brann's is a thriving local chain. Mind your own business by Tommy Brann tells the history of Brann's restaurant, the Brann family, and shares highs and lows of running a successful restaurant/small business. Until this book came across my desk recently, I didn't know that our go-to restaurant had been opened by a 19 year old kid, just out of school at East Grand Rapids High. Available for other Fanns of Brann's to browse in our local history collection.


Poverty can't be Solved and other Myths

Philosopher Peter Singer makes a compassionate, practical and moral case that we all should be giving more to end extreme poverty - the 1/3 of people living on 2 dollars/day. But first we have to get past the myths, barriers, and excuses that we tell ourselves.

Poverty can’t be Solved 

Wrong. 28 billion would do the trick (that’s the cost of education, sanitation, and healthcare for all according to the book and the website). To put that into perspective, if all Americans gave 3 dollars—that’s a billion already. Skip the latte tomorrow—there’s another 4 dollars you could donate. Moreover, the annual income of the richest 100 people could end poverty four times over. Finally, if the richest nations of the world gave 1 percent of their income—that would end poverty too.

We Need to Fix the Deeper Issues First

Yes, that’s correct. The organizations that fight extreme global poverty (like Oxfam) agree. They fix the deeper issues. They are not dropping bags of money from airplanes.

Charities Take Your Money 

Instead of helping poor people, your money goes to “administrative” purposes instead, right? Wrong. Not if you pick good charities. This book shows you how.

Government Should Do It

Government’s clearly don’t give enough to solve the problem, and America is actually near the bottom of the list in terms of percentage of national income, as opposed to gross amount. In 2006 we gave only .18% for example. Governments could give more, and so could we.

I Give Locally

That’s great, but 1/3 of the world lives in extreme poverty. Can you imagine living on less than 2 dollars a day? It’s all about perspective. This is not the Ice Bucket Challenge here (no disrespect; that was a great and successful campaign). But children are dying on a daily basis from routine, preventable diseases. The people that live in the United States, generally speaking, are much better off.

I Need to Save for my Future

Young people (including me) are especially guilty of this. The truth, of course, is that you can invest in many things.


Learn Something New Every Day

Learn something new every day? This isn't a new concept for librarians, for whom daily enrichment goes along with the profession. But, this book presents a unique way to acquire new ideas. Subtitled '365 Facts to Fulfill Your Life,' author Malesky presents a half-page (sometimes even shorter) anecdote or story about some little-known event or concept for each day of the year. Classed in the 031 category, this book isn't really history, science, or the arts, or any one discipline, but all of the above and then some. When I checked the entry for my birthday, I found 'The Land of Fire,' in which the author talks about Tierra del Fuego, a region which today is divided between Argentina and Chile. Anyone wanting to experience a potluck of random ideas presented in an entertaining manner should check out this quirky volume.