Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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A Walk in the Woods

Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (1998)
A Walk in the Woods

The Appalachian Trail runs over 2,000 miles, through 14 states, from Georgia to Maine, and Bill Bryson decided to walk it.  Fans of Bryson’s other travel books (In a Sunburned Country, Neither Here Nor There, and more) know that they will get a very personal account of his travels, with comments that are, at times, trivial, bizarre, amazed, grumpy, and very, very funny.  A Walk in the Woods ranks as one of Bryson’s best, a real delight.

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Survival Lessons



I have always enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s novels, being introduced to her at age 16 and awaiting each new release. Her books have elements of magical realism and dystopian fiction, with several having ended up on bestseller lists and turned into feature films. I was very interested to learn, then, that she had written and published her very first non-fiction book.

Survival Lessons was started while Hoffman was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, while at the same time facing down other life disruptions and losses. She describes the book’s origins as a sort of ad-hoc list for herself of important affirmations and choices to remember while going through her ordeal and for when she made it through to the other side, as a survivor. This is the meaning behind the title of the book. While there are parts that are deeply personal, this book is not a memoir in the traditional sense.

During a first cursory glance of the subject matter and summary, I sighed and surmised that it would be probably be depressing and tearful. Also, did I really want to put myself through that in this post-holiday dead of winter? I could not talk myself out of foregoing something written by my favorite author, so I checked out our copy of Survival Lessons on audiobook, popped it in for a long car ride and ended up feeling much more uplifted and hopeful than I ever anticipated. But, most importantly, I arrived at my final destination with a list of people I already wanted to start recommending this title to.

While chemotherapy and cancer are mentioned, it is not the central focus; nor does Hoffman make her illness-or even herself-the main character of the book. Her aim here seems to be an all-inclusive observation of life upheaval; humans become survivors by making it through all manner of painful events that cause one’s view of their world and of themselves to change. Loss and joy run through all lives, she reminds us. It is impossible to have one without the other.

Each chapter is a "choice" that Hoffman presents to the reader, framing it within her own experiences. Chapter 1, for example, is “Choose Your Heroes.” Other “choices” include: choosing to plan for your future, choosing to forgive, and choosing to dream. Hoffman, never preachy, always includes the listener in her suggestions and experiences. This format results in a more reflective and personal experience, as opposed to simply reading someone else's story and trying to find where you-as the reader or listener-can relate.

While I was hoping that the author herself would narrate the book, Xe Sands took that role. While at times a bit cloying, Sands voice is ultimately pleasant and she adds dignity and emotion to Hoffman's words and experiences. If you are looking for an interesting and thought-provoking commute, by all means grab the audio version. With only 1 hour total running time and easy stopping points, you could get through this book in a just a few days. Survival Lessons is also available in print format, at 83 pages, and through OverDrive.

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Books on Fermenting

(2003, 2012, 2013)
Books on Fermentation


Over the last couple years there are several books on fermentation that I have quite enjoyed.

Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz

The Art of Fermentation: an in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world, by Sandor Katz

True brews : how to craft fermented cider, beer, wine, sake, soda, mead, kefir, and kombucha at home, by Emma Christensen

Fermented Foods for Health, by Deirdre Rawlings

Real Food Fermentation : preserving whole fresh food with live cultures in your home kitchen, by Alex Lewin


Sandor Katz’s titles are extremely thorough; he is a well-known expert in the field, so it is good to know about him if you want to really delve into the subject.  If you want a quicker, prettier introduction to fermentation, I recommend either of the last two titles as they have a lot of good information and beautiful photos.


bottled and brewing kombuchaUsing Lewin’s text as a jumping-off point, I have been brewing Kombucha for a year.  A member of my household can’t bear to look at the jar, much less taste it; however, this individual kindly assists me with sterilizing my jars and equipment for new batches if I ask.  I first tried Kombucha on a whim, wondering what it was when I saw it on the grocery shelf.  After Googling it at home, I quickly decided to learn to make it since it’s quite pricey to purchase.    


I have also made and liked Rawling’s Ginger-Carrot Kraut, and at some point would like to try my hand at Kimchi as there are few things so good as real, fermented Kimchi!  Even if you aren’t up for trying your hand at fermenting, if you like learning new things and reading new recipes, these are some great titles on a topic that is growing in popularity.


fermentation book covers
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No Strings Attached


Professional beach volleyball player Dune Cates and his partner Mac are back in Dune’s hometown of Barefoot William for a volleyball tournament. The beaches of Barefoot William are crawling with bikini-clad groupies, all wanting Dune’s attention, so why can’t he stop thinking about the quiet, socially -challenged Sophie Saunders?


Sophie Saunders has had a crush on Dune Cates since second grade, when he rescued her after she had fallen off her bike.  In the 15 years that have passed, Sophie has followed Dune’s career and her admiration for his kind ways have only made her crush on him stronger.


Pick up No Strings Attached and meet the fun and charming characters that make up the community of Barefoot William. Discover if Sophie, an outsider, can find her place within the tight-knit community and most of all, watch what happens as Dune and Sophie open their hearts and minds to the idea of forever.

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The Aviator's Wife


Melanie Benjamin has assigned Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, the storyteller in her book "The Aviator's Wife."  The result is that Charles Lindbergh's co-pilot in the air, and in life, relates an interesting account of the couple's adventures amidst the clouds as well as on the ground.  The aviatrix exposes a marriage built upon dependence and high expectation rather than mutual love.  Though it is historical fiction, the imaginary and the true are blended together successfully to form a realistic account of their experiences both in private and while under the constant scrutiny of a public painting them as celebrities.    

The reader is first introduced to the characters on Christmas Eve of 1927.  The shy Anne Spencer Morrow meets the famous and distinguished Charles Lindbergh at a party in Mexico where Anne's father is serving as the American Ambassador, and Charles is his distinguished guest. She is taken with his mystique and he with her blind devotion, and they are married after an incomplete courtship. 

At times, the chapters are interrupted by the year 1974 when the bulk of the Lindbergh's marriage is behind them, and Charles is faced with the imminent end of his illustrious life.  Time is running out.  Anne seeks closure with answers to questions that have gone virtually ignored for 45 years.  Characteristic of marriage, the years brought pleasure and pain: five children born after the unfathomable kidnapping of their firstborn son; hero status for Charles after his trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris, and accolades for Anne who served as Charles' co-pilot after their marriage and was the first licensed female glider pilot in the U.S.  However, in spite of all their accomplishments and togetherness, the distance between them often spanned the distance of an ocean.         

Benjamin does a commendable job bringing the Lindberghs back to life.  From the headlines surrounding the infamous kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to Charles' questionable allegiances in Europe preceding World War II, the author delves into the events and resulting emotions with great intensity.  While Anne Morrow Lindbergh concentrates on the strengths and weaknesses of her beloved husband, she also exposes much about herself. As a parent, she flew solo as her husband's escapades kept him away from his family, she suffered in silence when her baby was taken from her, and her life's desire was to be a celebrated writer.  She accompished the latter with her penning of "A Gift from the Sea" and her deep involvement with author Charles Lindbergh's publication "The Spirit of St. Louis."  

Benjamin reminds readers that "the aviator's wife" seized opportunities during a time in history when most women were content at home or willing to walk in the shadow of a husband.  She had the support of her own husband, "Lucky Lindy", who, in spite of his flaws, encouraged his wife to break barriers and venture away from the home.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh proved that women could have their head in the clouds and still accomplish what once seemed impossible for a woman of her generation.    


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The Dogma of Rufus

A CanineGuide to Eating, Sleeping, Digging, Slobbering, Scratching, and Surviving with Humans (2013)
The Dogma of Rufus

Rufus writes a guide for young dogs in which he shares essential ancient wisdom passed down over the ages from dog to dog. He also includes intimate knowledge of the human condition so young dogs can be better prepared to help humans lead a less pathetic existence.  Some things are left out, in case a human might be reading this book.

The book is divided into three sections-The Fundamentals, Troubleshooting and Raising Humans.

Anyone who has ever lived with a dog will not be surprised to find that the number one fundamental and mission statement is “Human Food-Our Central Purpose”.  This section also covers dog food, sleeping, marking, chasing balls, licking, biting, slobbering, welcoming guests and chasing cars (just don't do it).

Troubleshooting includes tricks, barking (how loud and annoying can you go), cats (an evolutionary mistake), professional working dogs, breed stereotypes (don’t be a doggist), philosophy, dog parks (with some fascinating pictures of dogs chasing Frisbees), leashes, sexuality (what is more natural than humping?), and holidays (costumes make for unhappy dogs).

Rufus is especially forthright in the section on humans. Chapter titles include: Dog Whisperers-the dumbest idea since the concept of throwing away “spoiled” food and Dog Substitutes-if you don’t have time for a dog, how about a nice dog statue?  Subjects covered include veterinarians (Natural disaster or Spawn of Satan?) and the poop problem (out of control human weirdness).  Barring all modesty, Rufus extolls his young readers to maximize their cuteness potential while they still have it. 

Sprinkled throughout the book are dog Haiku:

A stranger passes,

Human companion ignores,

Hey, that guy had food.

You will also find random question and answer sections, dog/human dictionaries, quizzes (dog or not a dog-Westie: Probably a dog. Maybe), and lots of color illustrations.

Larry Arnstein was a writer for SNL. He won two Writers Guild of America awards for Not Necessarily the News. He and his sons Zack and Joey assisted Rufus in this endeavor.

All in all, this is a delightful, entertaining and educational book. As Rex from Dog Magazine stated: “Riveting! …Couldn’t put it down!”





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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

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


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


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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