Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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Bathing the Lion

(2014)
Bathing the Lion

Jonathan Carroll’s work is often described as magic realism, but I think Neil Gaiman said it best by stating that reading Carroll is “as if John Updike were to write a Philip K Dick novel.”  

Carroll’s book packs in a lot of different stories and details, often mixed together. The very pages of the book are thin; the smoky images at the head of each chapter visible through the following pages.

The relationships in his books tether his stories to everyday life. In all his books he explores what it means to be human, and the meaning of life and death.  He dives headlong into these topics and his books give comfort and wonder to those who allow themselves to follow where he goes.  But that is also where he loses a lot of readers. The characters and their relationships fall by the wayside of the “bigger picture”.

 This book is especially reminiscent of Phillip K Dick when five characters show up in the same dream. They all bring things buried in their psyches to the collective dream. (There is even a chatty chair). There are a lot of characters with complicated relationships, which change when they remember who they are. There really isn’t a plot. This is a slice of life, or rather many slices of life, if life were really weird. Some reviewers found the characters flat and the book boring. The sci-fi part of the book is not the usual world building fantasy that present day sci-fi readers are used to.  In a nutshell, the story is that there are beings in the universe who keep Reality from being torn apart by Chaos. They are called “Mechanics” and each performs a specific task until it is finished, rather like ants, and then they are retired. Some choose to retire on earth as humans, where they live out their lives and then die. In this book, they are being re-called to remember who they are in order to fight the coming Chaos. This turns out to be not so much an “alien invasion”  but more a routine, ongoing process. The essence of the Mechanics that has been enhanced and changed by being human is “harvested” to fight Chaos.

Even though the characters are not fully developed, they star in a series of vignettes that make you think and stay with you. Carroll put a lot of thought into this book. The following two quotes were taken from the beginning of the book and the end of the book, respectively. (Keep in mind-Updike and Dick).

 “They had been together twelve years, married nine. Sometimes he tried to pinpoint exactly when their love had turned from solid to liquid to steam to thin air. Sometimes he wondered when she had stopped loving him. At this stage he didn’t care.”

“Chaos doesn’t do, it undoes. What was a moment ago now isn’t when Chaos comes to town.   What was solid is now liquid or soft or gas or gone. Things that were a hundred per cent certain, definite, or guaranteed became instantly suspect once Chaos arrives.”

Just when you think they are getting to an “aha” moment, it turns out to be more of a whimper than a bang. But life goes on, and it seems to be Carroll’s hope that we find something to love and enjoy about it, just as one of the more hateful characters finds solace at the end by the simple act of petting a dog's head.

 

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The Other End of the Leash

(2002)
The Other End of the Leash

Dr. Patricia McConnell is an applied animal behaviorist and dog trainer with more than twenty years experience. The Other End of the Leash is a fantastic read for dog owners or those interested in animal-human interaction. Dr. McConnell very practically illustrates the differences between primate and canid behavior and mannerisms, and explains why many things we as humans do can be difficult or impossible for dogs to understand. She also presents ways that humans can alter their behavior to increase communication and understanding between the species (talk less and be very aware of and intentional with your body language/movement).

One month prior to reading The Other End of the Leash, I had been experimenting with my puppy, using mostly hand signals and drastically cutting down on vocal commands. I noticed that my dog obeyed far faster with hand signals without the hesitating look of “Um, let me make sure I understand what you’re trying to say.” A lot of the things I had been learning through experimentation and observation were confirmed in McConnell’s book with an explanation as to why it worked. Everything I tested from her book worked on the first try (such as getting my dog to come right away using solely body language and movement). As an introvert, I love not having to chatter at him, and he doesn’t miss it (dogs’ primary means of communicating aren’t vocal, and I am finally speaking his language).

I highly recommend this book to dog owners. There is so much practical, applicable information, and it may just give you a new paradigm through which to view some of your dog’s “problem” behaviors with great advice for effective interventions.

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Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin

2014

Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, was born to gifted and well-to-do parents. Her mother was a singer and her father was a well-known preacher who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights movement. Life wasn’t a piece of cake. Aretha’s mother left the family when she was young leaving the father as a single parent. Her father showcased her childhood talent by waking her up in the middle of the night to play piano and sing for his party guests. Aretha experienced her first pregnancy at the age of 12, her second baby arrived when she was 15 and she dropped out of school. Aretha’s babies were raised by big mama, her father’s mother. Aretha experienced her first recording session with Columbia Records in 1960 at the age of 18. The book covers her years her early years of gospel singing in the church which taught her the response and call method she employed throughout her career. She was associated with Columbia, Atlantic and Arista Records.  She dealt with a variety of agents and collaborators most notably Jerry Wexler. We discover that Aretha is a dreamer who has trouble following through with grandiose plans. She is a diva who jealously protects her status as Queen. Aretha is unable to manage her financial affairs and tour schedules, has a fear of flying and is often not on speaking terms with fellow musicians or family members for months at time. Yet she is an artist whose work is greatly admired. Her classic recordings of Chain of Fools, RESPECT, Think, and other works are considered standards in the R&B canon. Ritz’s readable but detailed biography could have focused more time on Franklin’s personal life but the star is notoriously private. Ritz interviewed countless acquaintances and family members in order to construct this inside look at Franklin’s life.

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The Boston Girl

(2014)
The Boston Girl

 

Truth be told, I love a good coming of age story.  The Boston Girl is one to remember.   Addie Baum, recounting her life to her granddaughter in an interview, is an engaging storyteller.  Once you suspend your disbelief to allow for a beautifully crafted tale as a spontaneous interview, you are bewitched by this touching reflection on life in a Jewish immigrant family during the first half of the 20th century.  Addie’s meaningful or playful asides to her granddaughter maintain the compelling dimension of the story being told.  It is sometimes difficult to separate the curious young woman from the seasoned octogenarian, but Addie Baum is vibrant at every age. I did not want to put this book down, even after I had turned the last page.  I will likely listen to the audio version to hear this story at Addie Baum’s knee once more.

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Wandering Son

(2011)

Wandering Son is a masterfully handled manga about two fifth grade friends, a boy and a girl, who wish they were a girl and a boy, respectively.  Shuichi is naturally quiet and shy, and keeps his desire to be a girl private, restricted to only a few very close friends, including Takatsuki, who wants to be a boy.  The two struggle through their difficulties together, like when boys at school point out Takatsuki’s budding femininity.  The friends encourage each other to be brave, practicing wearing opposite gender clothing in public together, in a town or two over, to avoid potential scrutiny from their peers.

I was very impressed with the sensitive, thoughtful handling of the difficulties faced by transgendered people in this story, especially in the frequently long, roundabout path of coming to terms with being trans.  This book does a great job at bringing this seldom talked about subject to light.  The author never resorts to the typical, offensive “cross-dresser” gags that are so frequent in popular media.  Instead, this is a thought-provoking, real, and very sweet story about coming out of one’s shell to embrace their true personality and finding the support to do that.  It is never heavy-handed in its message; instead, the author chooses to show Shuichi and Takatsuki’s journey.

I found it refreshing that in this series, the students actually grow up and graduate from multiple grades; surprisingly, it is not episodic.  I think this gives the story the advantage of having appeal to a wide variety of ages, from teens to adults.  This story comes highly-recommended.

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Girl With a Pearl Earring

(1999)
Girl With a Pearl Earring

Inspired by 17th century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer's famous painting, Tracy Chevalier creates a beautiful tale about Girl With a Pearl Earring.  As a fan of both historical fiction and art, I fell in love with this book.  In Chevalier's imagination, 16 year old Griet comes to live with the Vermeer family in Delft, Holland to serve as a maid in their home. Griet struggles to find her niche within the household which includes six children, Vermeer's fiery tempered wife, Catharina, her mother, Maria Thins, and Tanneke, a loyal maid who does not take kindly to Griet's arrival.  Vermeer and Griet share a similar view of the world, despite their completely different places in society. Eventually, Johannes takes an interest in Griet and she becomes his muse and model for this stunning work.  As one can imagine, scandal follows quickly on the heels of this relationship.

 

If you like the book, I would also recommend the film starring Colin Firth, as Vermeer, and Scarlett Johansson, perfectly cast, as Griet. (The resemblance between Johansson and the young girl in the actual painting is stunning!)

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The Book of Unknown Americans

(2014)

"The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henriquez tells the touching stories impacting the lives of a group of immigrant families sharing space in a Newark, Delaware apartment building.  The immigrants have come together from various countries around the globe such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Paraguay, Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.  Each of them face common and individual challenges related to assimilation into their adopted American homeland.  Central to Henriquez's story are teenagers Maribel Rivera and Mayor Toro who develop a close bond as they grant each other  the unconditional acceptance they both so desperately need.   

Arturo and Alma Rivera have recently crossed the Mexican border with their only child Maribel. They are desperate to find the quality schooling necessary for Maribel after an accident left her with a traumatic brain injury.  Celia and Rafael brought their young sons Enrique and Mayor to America nearly 15 years earlier after fleeing military conflict in Panama.  Many of the neighboring families came to the United States to escape poverty, war, or persecution.  Parents hoped to give children better opportunities such as a good education promising a more secure future.  Together, they all form one big family as they navigate the obstacles of new life in a country that does not always readily accept their presence.    

A good part of "The Book of Unknown Americans" is told from the perspective of Maribel's mother Alma.  She struggles with the guilt of her daughter's accident and places all her hopes for the future into Maribel's recovery.  Alma finds solace in the kindness of her neighbor Celia who has her own struggles trying to understand her husband and son. 

The author builds a touching story from the experiences of the apartment dwellers.  She offers a momentary glimpse into the lives of immigrants who have gambled their past for an uncertain future in an uncertain place they now call home.  Upon arrival and immersion into a strange culture, they find a mix of despair, joy, and hope.  Henriquez respectfully, and successfully, illustrates an emotional side of the issue that is more clearly about relationships than government policy.   

   

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Death By Black Hole

And Other Cosmic Quandaries

The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, is a familiar figure to those of us addicted to those documentaries about space that pop up on PBS and the History Channel. Tyson is an affable figure on TV, and proves to be the same in print. This book is a collection of articles that he wrote for “Natural History” magazine. They present complex topics in a clear, conversational manner, infused with humor. Thought-provoking and entertaining.

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The book of trees

visualizing branches of knowledge (2014)
The book of trees:  visualizing branches of knowledge

A fascinating introduction to the history and design of tree forms used to explain knowledge in a visual way, this book is filled with historical and modern tree designs.  From hand-lettered medieval trees showing the relationship of Biblical characters to modern computer-generated trees of Twitter feeds, there are 200 wonderful examples of all sorts of tree styles.  There is something for everyone—square representations of states by area in 1939, the X-Men family tree, or icicle trees used by statisticians.

Author Manuel Lima’s critically acclaimed bestseller Visual Complexity examined information visualizations; now his second book highlights visual literacy and symbolic representations that store information.  Short biographies of pivotal figures in this progression provide more historical depth.

 

 

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Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life

2014

Diego Rivera was twice the size and age of Frida Kahlo when they married in August of 1929 but they seemed destined to be together. Rivera was a famous Mexican muralist who used the fresco method of painting on wet plaster. Kahlo was known for her self-portraits showing her suffering due to internal injuries resulting from a bus accident and for her depictions and deep love of animals. As a child, she contracted polio. She had always been sickly. Reef has written a book about one of the most interesting artist couples in history. They were ardent Communists who befriended Leon Trotsky, they each had extra marital affairs, they married twice, and their artwork can be seen throughout the world. Numerous photographs enhance this book.

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The Snow Child

2012
The Snow Child

Initially, I was pulled into this story by the trailer seen here.   I was absorbed by the hearty pioneers placed against the vivid backdrop of colonial Alaska.  As I read this book in the summer, its imagery made me shiver.  It seems very timely, given the fresh snowfall.  Based upon a Russian folktale, The Snow Child transports you to the Alaskan wilderness, where a husband and wife struggle to begin a new life, one that is treacherous and hard-fought, but enchanting.  The couple, haunted by their childless state, takes in a mysterious girl, found alone in the bitter cold.  Though the girl, Faina, is accepted into this small family, she retains her mythical quality and flits in and out of their life.  The story deals with reality versus illusion, what it means to belong, and emotional as well as physical survival.  Grab a warm blanket and curl up with this gem.  Sample it here.

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