Staff Picks

 Comment on a review by clicking on its title. You can also write your thoughts about any book on our Facebook Wall. When you're in the Library, be sure to browse the "Staff Picks" display for additional staff suggestions.

You can still access reviews from pre-September 2012 for Adults and Children.

The Battle for Christmas

A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday (1996)
The Battle for Christmas

Now and again we hear about how there is a war being waged on Christmas. Yet the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas. In 1659, the Massachusetts General Court even declared celebrating Christmas to be a criminal offense. How did we get from there to here?

The Puritan’s reasoning against the December 25th holiday included there being no mention in the Bible of when Christ was born and that no shepherds would have been out with flocks in December. Increase Mather stated that those who did celebrate Christmas in December did not do so “thinking that Christ was born in that month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian (ones).”

Christmas was celebrated in many different ways-pious devotion, feasting, drinking, misrule and carnival, social inversion, and even violence, but they were all public celebrations. By the mid-1700’s, even Massachusetts joined in, but in a “suitable” manner, without including superstition and without the excesses of the day.  

The commercialism associated with Christmas, and decried as taking away from the “true meaning” of the holiday, actually reflects the 19th century redefinition of Christmas as a family holiday, instead of a public one. The author states that Christmas as we know it started with the mercantile Episcopalian Knickerbockers in New York City in the 1820’s, including Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore (A Visit from St. Nicholas), who popularized this genteel version Christmas.

Christmas gained official recognition in the US between the 1840's-1860's. By 1865, 27 out of 36 states had set December 25th as a day when certain kinds of ordinary business could not be legally transacted. Interestingly, two of the states that did not enact this legislation were in the south east.

Behind the images of domestic bliss that Americans now regard as the timeless embodiment of Christmas lies a convoluted social, political, and theological history filled with irony. From colonial New England through 18th and 19th century New York’s urban Yuletide contributions, historian author Stephen Nissenbaum does a fascinating and thorough job of tracing Christmas in America.

 

 

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Heirs of the Body

2013
Heirs of the Body

The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher’s cousin Edgar, Lord Dalrymple,  is in his 50s and childless.  He decides search for the family member who legally will inherit the entailed estate of Fairacres and the title of Lord Dalrymple.   Potential claimants are a diamond merchant hailing from South Africa, hotel owner from Scarborough, a teenage boy from Trinidad and a rum-running sailor from Jamaica.  None of the descendants are known to the family and there are no family papers at Fairacres showing which line of the family should inherit, so Daisy is recruited to help sort things out. 

She brings her two year old twins and stepdaughter Belinda as well as husband Alec Fletcher, a representative of law and order who gets dragged into the quest for a future Lord Dalrymple when a series of accidents happen to the potential heirs.

The delightful characters and a late 1920s setting in this cozy mystery will appeal to readers of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, as well as those who enjoy the manners and period setting of Downton Abbey.  While this book can be read as a standalone, you may wish to meet Daisy before she had a husband and children, beginning with Death at Wentwater Court.

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Johnny Cash: The Life

2013

Hilburn delivers a highly detailed but readable account of the legendary country singer, Johnny Cash. Virtually every aspect of his career and personal life is covered including his boyhood in Dyess, Arkansas, his admiration for Jimmie Rodgers,  the start of his recording career with Sun Records, Cash’s first gold record (the album Ring of Fire), his marriage into the Carter family, and his highly acclaimed video of Hurt which was produced by Rick Rubin. Hilburn has written the most comprehensive and accessible book about the Man in Black to date. He explores Cash’s ongoing substance abuse issues, the constant pressure to be creative, his need to constantly stand up for the underdog, his generosity, and his ongoing feelings of love and guilt toward his family. This book will be a welcome addition to a number of books on the subject such as Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash (2010), Anchored in Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash by John Carter Cash (2007), and Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash (2003). A comprehensive index will appeal to researchers and general readers alike.

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The Black Count

Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
The Black Count by Tom Reiss

 This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner in Biography was also the best book I’ve listened to in 2013. The Black Count by Tom Reiss is both informative and entertaining. Read by Paul Michael, an actor who gave the story even more depth with his expressive style and excellent pronunciation, this book is a step above the average biography. I was enthralled not only by the amazing adventures of the man who was the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo but by the writing style of the author.

Few books have engrossed me like the Black Count. The impact of French culture in European and American thought became clear in this fascinating book. In this book, I learned the origins of how slavery took on its racial overtones with its codification in the French colonies. Reiss also outlines the famine and deadly bureaucracy that lead to rabid violence of the French Revolution. Before reading this book, I knew the government of Robespierre was backwards but never so backwards as to order thousands of pikes in the age of the musket. Reiss weaves many facts and stories together to create the complex taspesty that is Alex Dumas. The Black Count himself, Alexander Dumas,  was so astounding in both character and deed, Napoleon Bonaparte found him to be a threat.  His humanity in the face of the mob, his love story that inspires and his fantastic fighting skills make him a hero for the ages.

Although, The Black Count was at times hard to stomach (Warning: Do not read the section about the Vendée before sleeping)it is well researched and shows an understanding of French, Creole and African culture that few authors can produce in one book. Tom Reiss’s skill in writing this non-fiction title allows the reader to be immersed in the 18th century. I would whole hearted recommend this book for adults and older teens who like books or movies that have action, adventure or history. Fans of Horatio Hornblower and fans of the Die Hard franchise alike will find this to be an enjoyable read.

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Out of Our Minds

2011

If you have a child in public schools or even if you don’t, you have likely heard of the Common Core curriculum. Common Core sets benchmarks in learning for each grade level K-12. Here is a quick overview directly from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

“Academic standards are expectations for what students should know and be able to do in kindergarten through 12th grade.   The Common Core State Standards articulate this knowledge and skills in the areas of English language arts and mathematics.

Example English language arts CCSS from grade 3: Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea (Informational Reading, 3.2)”

Educator and author Ken Robinson challenges the notion that education can be distilled into an age based / grade level based, one size fits all approach, that every child in fourth grade should be at the same level of knowledge. In his book, Out of Our Minds he challenges the idea that all children should be expected to know the same materials at the same age. He even challenges the notion that children should be broken up into grades the way traditional schools do. More importantly he argues that education today has turned “septic,” that we have cut away important pieces (the arts) in order to force a focus on reading, math and science. Robinson argues that in today’s market it the ability to thinking creatively and form original ideas will be more important than many of the items the current educational system has pushed to the top of the list.

 

Whether you agree or disagree with Robinson’s reasoning he does build a solid case for his beliefs and the book gives a lot of food for thought. I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in education.  If you don’t have time to get through the book I would at least give his TED Talk a listen, it clocks in at around twelve minutes and is certainly worth the time spent. 

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Tha Abandoned

1950
The Abandoned

I was thrilled to see this has been reissued!  This is the first book I remember needing to own.  I was so worried someday I would not be able to find it at my library!  Peter Brown is a young boy who desperately wants to have a cat.  See why I was hooked right from the start? Nanny says absolutely not.  What a mean nanny!  Peter sees a chance to save a stray from a terrible fate, but ends up having a serious accident of his own.  All is not lost.  When Peter wakes up, he finds he has turned into a cat himself!  Luckily he meets Jennie, a streetwise survivor.  She and Peter have many adventures, some of which are not very nice.  Think Wizard of OZ for a cat instead of Dorothy.  I loved it forty years ago, and still have fun reading it now. 

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Outliers

The Story of Success (2008)
Outliers: The Story of Success

Malcolm Gladwell has made a career of looking at things we thought we knew from a different perspective, as he did in his previous best-sellers Blink and The Tipping Point.  In Outliers, he examines success.  What makes someone successful?  Sure it’s hard work—did you know that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated work to master just about any field?—but it’s also opportunity.  And culture.  And pure accident.  Using examples from the famous and the unknown, along with the most recent scientific studies, Gladwell presents a surprising case for the real causes of success.

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Great Balls of Cheese

(2013)
Great Balls of Cheese, by Michelle Buffardi

Just in time for the holidays, this short cookbook has new and traditional sweet and savory cheese ball recipes. If you are inclined, take the time to copy the cheese-ball-sculptures; it will definitely amuse your friends and family. While I'm not one to spend much time on presentation (solely due to lack of skill), the recipes themselves are really good on their own. Amazon posts numerous positive and satisfied reviews for this title, so take a look. 

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Rose Under Fire

(2013)
companion novel to Code Name Verity

"Izabela, Aniela, Alicia, Eugenia, Stefania, Rozalia, Pelagia, Irena, Alfreda, Apolonia, Janina, Leonarda, Czeslava, Stanislava, Vladyslava, Barbara..." and so starts the counting-out rhyme of Rose Justice, 19 year old American ATA pilot and poet, ferrying Allied fighter planes for the British during World War II.

Returning from a routine mission to France, Rose is intercepted by the Nazis and taken political prisoner to Ravensbruck - the infamous women's camp that held 150,000 prisoners during the war. The names she recites are those of the Polish women in the camp known as "rabbits", because they were literally the subject of medical experimentation for the Nazis. This is a powerful, riveting story and an extremely important one.

The strength, courage, & bravery exhibited by the women of Ravensbruck under extremely harsh conditions is nothing short of astounding. As in her previous novel, Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein delivers another heart-wrenching and unforgettable tale. Look for this one to win awards and become a popular choice for book discussion groups. I highly recommend it.

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Margot

2013

The year is 1959 and in Philadelphia, as in most cities around the U.S., people are swarming to theaters to see the new film, The Diary of Anne Frank. Everyone that is, except Margie Franklin. Margie leads a unassuming life as a secretary at a local Jewish law firm. She is a quiet, hard-working woman, eager to be a good secretary, but even more eager remain unnoticed. The reason behind her seclusion is that she is living a lie. Her real name is Margot Frank, older sister to the now famous Anne Frank, who somehow managed to escape Bergen-Belsen, come to America, and reinvent herself as Margie Franklin. As Anne Frank becomes a national sensation, it becomes obvious that Margie has a major decision to make. Does she continue to live her lonely existence as Margie Franklin or does she face the past and reclaim her life as Margot Frank?

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Orphan Train: A Novel

(2013)

Every once in a while a book comes along that you say to yourself when finished reading, what a story.  After reading this book, I felt this way.  The story is about a family that immigrates to the United States from Ireland.  The family lives in New York City encountering many hardships.  One night a tragedy happens, and one little girl's life changes forever.  She becomes an orphan in New York City.  She is put on a train with many other orphans and travels to the Midwest with having a chance to be adopted.  Vivian tells her story to a gal that has been ordered to do community service that has been in the foster system a while. They will form a bond despite the age difference and help each other discover themselves.  You will admire Vivian's tenacity at such a young age and appreciate the human spirit.

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