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.

Unlikely Friendships

47 remarkable stories from the animal kingdom (2011)
Unlikely Friendships

This sweet, sweet book is aimed directly at people like me who like pretty much anything with fur, feathers, or four feet.  Written by National Geographic  magazine writer Jennifer Holland, it was suggested to me after a co-worker --who also has a menagerie of cats (and birds) at home-- happened upon it one day while perusing the New Books display shelves.

 

Unlikely Friendships: 47 remarkable stories from the animal kingdom, is a collection of short entries, each with beautiful color photos.  Koko the gorilla and her kitten, All Ball, is probably the most familiar story that so many of us fell in love with: Koko asks for a kitten (in American Sign Language), proceeds to care for it, mourns its loss, and learns to love again. This was nearly forty years ago, and it doesn't seem unusual anymore.  The pairings and stories presented here go well beyond what could be considered simply instinct.  Some are long relationships, some are very temporary, but all show compassion, empathy, and friendship on a level many only attribute to humans.  If nothing else, they are beautiful pictures with nice, happy short stories.

 

There is certainly no question that animals make emotional connections with people.  This has been proven by more than anecdotal evidence.  Studies show that encounters with pets can lower blood pressure, ease depression, and soothe mental and physical pain.  The next question is if, and how, they connect with each other and their world.  Are they able to problem solve?  Do they socialize? Do they play?  Several studies address this, but they are likely rather dry reading; here are some other books that I think you will find very readable. 

 

   First, from Marc Bekoff, The emotional lives of animals.  After a forward by Jane Goodall, Bekoff presents stories of animal joy, empathy, grief, embarrassment, anger and love along with the supporting scientific research. 

 

  Next try  Bats sing, mice giggle by Karen Shanor and Jagmeet Kanwal.   I haven't seen it happen, but don't question their abilities. Then again, I was raised on Disney cartoons!

 

  Most recently, Virginia Morell brings us Animal Wise: the thoughts and emotions of our fellow creatures.   As a science writer, not a scientist, Morell brings the most recent animal cognition research to life.

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The Name Above the Title

An Autobiography (1971)
The Name Above the Title

In my opinion, this is the best book ever written about Hollywood and the making of movies.  It’s the autobiography of Frank Capra, the director of such classic films as It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life.  It was a difficult life for Capra, as he began in poverty, emigrating from Italy as a child and struggling to make a living through odd jobs as he stumbled into the movie business.  He struggled there, too, but innate talent and tremendous hard work made him, by the 1930s, the world’s most famous film director, and the winner of three Best Director Academy Awards in just five years.  Capra provides an enthralling account of his rise, filled with fascinating details about the making of his films, and his work with legendary Hollywood figures like Harry Cohn, the ruthless boss of Columbia Pictures, and actors such as Barbara Stanwyck, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, and Jimmy Stewart.  Particularly good is Capra’s description of the production of It’s a Wonderful Life, which he considered his masterpiece.

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I Love Dirt!

2008
I Love Dirt!

Ahhh Spring!

I love being outside; hearing, smelling, and feeling nature.  As a kid, I spent many afternoons just sitting up in “my tree.”  I would read or write little stories about the things I saw in the clouds.  I would actually get excited when it rained in the spring so I could go searching for worms that had been flushed from their homes.

 Now, I'm a mom with three kids that sit in the house on the computer or on one of the (I counted) nine different computerized devices that we own.  They don't have a tree spot picked out in the yard or get excited when it rains.  I'm not sure they even notice it's raining.

 I am on a mission to get outside!  I know there are other mothers out there dealing with the same problem.  This book may be our solution.

I LOVE DIRT!  by Jennifer Ward

Ward has 52 activities to help you and your kids discover the wonders of nature in all four seasons.  Some ideas are puddle jumping in the spring, arranging a backyard camp-out in the summer, finding a thinking spot in the yard in the fall, and studying the constellations in the winter.  All of her examples are simple and sweet but would make a huge impact on any child that may be experiencing them for the very first time.

I chose this book because the Forward was written by Richard Louv, the 2013 Fox Cities Reads author.  If you are interested in more outdoors reading, Louv’s books are Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle.   

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Popcorn

(2008)
Popcorn

This recipe book is separated into “Savory” and “Sweet” sections, as well as an “And More” section that incorporates popcorn into meals (I have never done anything from that last section).  The very beginning of the book talks a little about popping corn, including how to make your own microwave popcorn in paper lunch bags if you don’t own a popper or don’t like to make it on the stovetop.

 

From the “Savory” section, some of my favorites are the Herbes de Provence Popcorn, Chai Spice Popcorn (I find this sweet), Spicy Buffalo Popcorn, Chile Lime-Tequila Popcorn, and Gorgonzola and Green Onion Popcorn. From the “Sweet” Section, all I ever made was the Nice Sugar and Spice Popcorn (I preferred the Chai Spice) and the Candy Cane Corn.

 

Popcorn kernels are pretty much the only snack that I buy, so I love trying different recipes with it. Most all of them are quick and easy, consisting of popping the corn, stirring in the ingredients, and sometimes baking on a sheet to dry and set the flavors.

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The Watch That Ends the Night

Voices From the Titanic (2011)
The Watch That Ends the Night: Voices From the Titanic

Wow! This book (and audio book) are absolutely phenomenal. I will start by saying, as a rule, I never enjoy books written in verse. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this one - especially listening to the audio. Five different voice actors perform the role of two dozen passengers and crew, and even the Iceberg.

Everyone knows Titanic. We've heard the story, seen the movie, and romanticized the horrific disaster a dozen different ways. What we haven't really experienced is the raw emotion that Wolf brings us with this extraordinary book. The characters he depicts are so convincing, I had to remind myself that this is a work of fiction. Many times I found myself entangled in the lives of the passengers; so much so that my heart ached knowing many of them would not be arriving in New York, to return home or start anew.

We get to know the Captain & crew, socialites, immigrants, children & con artists. Allan Wolf has done meticulous research and given us fascinating background & notes at the end of his work. Quoting Wolf on page 435,"But my aim in writing The Watch That Ends the Night was not to present history. My aim was to present humanity. The people represented in this book lived and breathed and loved. They were as real as you or me. They could have been any one of us." I think that Mr.Wolf did a wonderful job presenting both.

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Three Sisters

2013

After pediatrician Andi Gordon was left stranded at the altar, she knew she needed to make a fresh start for herself. She is now the owner of one of the famed Three Sisters historic houses on Blackberry Island. Here she plans on opening her own practice and start her new life. Her house is the only one of the three houses that has been neglected, the other two have been fully restored by their devoted owners. One neighbor is Boston King, an artist who shares her house with her husband Zeke. Free-spirited Boston seems to lead a very charmed life but in reality, she has suffered a devastating tragedy and struggles daily to keep her marriage together and her career afloat. The third house is owned by Deeana Phillips, the ice queen, who rules her house and her family with an iron fist. When Deeana’s perfect world starts to crumble, long buried scars resurface and she is left to face some harsh realities. This is a story of three women, all very different, all facing difficult situations, and all of them needing each other’s help to heal.

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Little White Duck

A Childhood in China (2012)
Little White Duck

Little White Duck: a Childhood in China is a superb memoir of the 1970s youth of Na Liu as she grew up in China, and is illustrated by Liu’s husband, Andres Vera Martinez.  An example of the great stories told in the book is the first chapter, where Da Qin (Liu’s nickname as a child) is four years old and learns that the grandfather she hardly knows has passed away.  This grandfather was Chairman Mao, and Da Qin doesn’t understand why she is upset, but cries uncontrollably anyway.  The illustrations are simply exquisite and capture the emotions of the stories well.  This book received multiple starred reviews, and was one of School Library Journal's best books of 2012.  Highly recommended for students in grades 4 and up, as well as for teens and adults. 

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Reading Lolita in Tehran

A Memoir in Books (2003)
Reading Lolita in Tehran

The transformative power of literary fiction is debated, challenged, and celebrated in "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi.  A former professor of literature in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Nafisi uses prolific authors the likes of Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov to connect with students coming of age during a  very tumultuous time in Iran's history.  The Memoir illuminates the delicate fabric that is Iran by weaving a story set against the backdrop of a revolution and subsequent war with neighboring Iraq.  

Though the book highlights those years between 1977 and 1997, chapter one begins in 1995.  Shortly after the ceasefire with Iraq, Nafisi resigns from her latest teaching position at an Iranian university.  She realizes a long held dream when she invites a select group of female students into her home each Thursday morning to discuss classic works of literature.  For those few hours each week, the women meet to discuss books in many instances banned from bookstores as well as minds.  They come together for a united purpose, and shed not only their veils but also their fears and inhibitions.  The women share ideas, pastries, and laughter.  Members of the reading group find they have much in common, and yet their individual struggles are also very different.  "Reading Lolita in Tehran" allows readers into the lives of women living, and surviving, their own destinies in a country divided over the direction of its future.     

As the memoir unfolds, Nafisi offers a better understanding of the Iranian culture and the fascinating women of Iran.  She exposes the brightly colored lives hidden under the garments they wear.  Reading fiction becomes an escape from the realities of their lives and offers hope for the future.  The irony of the situation is that the women learn more about their true selves through the fictional lives of the fictional characters they read about.  For instance, "Pride and Prejudice" helps them with issues related to love while "The Great Gatsby" and "Lolita" explore morality and freedom of choice.    

The book proceeds to her teaching years at the University of Tehran and other universities in Iran.  This is the stage where Nafisi introduces many of the men in her memoir.  They are the students who deal with the unrest through demonstrations or sometimes acts of violence.  They are the students who question her views and agree to put "The Great Gatsby" on trial in the classroom.  They are also the students or fellow faculty members who respect her position and engage her in intellectual conversations.  While the men written about in Nafisi's memoir may have enjoyed less restrictions than women to express themselves in public, the men of Iran also suffered and lost so much during the years of revolution and war while sacrificing for their families and for their country.  

The novel covers a span of twenty years that sees the author returning to Iran after living and studying in the United States, undertaking marriage and raising of a family, forging friendships, being expelled from her teaching position at the University of Tehran, and remaining in Tehran when the war was fought so close to her home.  The novel concludes with sorrowful goodbyes as Azar Nafisi returns to the United States and accepts a teaching position at John Hopkins University in Washington D.C. 

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" is a story about culture and books as much as it is a history lesson about a land of mystery and intrigue that often seems so removed from our own experiences living in a democratic society.  Yet, so many of the desires, fears, and goals are universally the same.  The author can be heavy on the details, but the rewards of exercising reading patience make it well worth the effort.  And rest assured that though sometimes long on words, Azar Nafisi tells a story which is nothing short of mesmerizing.       

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Carrion Comfort

(2009, c1989)
Carrion Comfort

In this novel Dan Simmons portrays psychic vampires in a horror genre, which he uses to illuminate real evil in this world.  I read this book in 1989 when it was first published and it has stayed with me.

Simmons took the name of this book from a poem written in 1918 by a religious writer, Gerald Manley Hopkins. The story Simmons tells is one of sociopaths with powers. People diagnosed as sociopaths, (or exhibiting all the qualities of such), have no feeling for what others are experiencing. They may think of themselves as being very moral, and or religious. But they are incapable of empathy and so cannot experience any horror they might bring to others. Compound that with beings that can enter one's mind and control one's actions, and you have the premise for this book. Three characters are old mind vampires: Willi, Nina and Melanie. They have been playing a game to see who can make the most people kill themselves, in the most interesting ways, as they are bored with life.

People (and relatives of people) used and abused by these psychic vampires come to realize what they are up against and band together to go after them. One character, Saul Laski, first met Willi in a Nazi death camp where Willi used him and others in a deadly chess game featuring human chess pieces. He has been tracking WIlli ever since. Other protagonists include a young black college student who figures out that his fathers “suicide” was the direct result of interference from one of these creatures, as well as a Southern sheriff who is much more intelligent than he lets on.

The uneasiness one feels reading this book may be due to Simmons changing to the point of view of Melanie Fuller, one of the players of the “game”. Seeing the world through her eyes is horrifying; every murder committed by her is justified by numerous reasons she patiently explains to the reader. It is the sheer banality of her evil that is most disturbing.  Simmons shows us how easy it becomes to commit monstrous acts when the ordinary rules of civilized society are suspended. These creatures, who are less than human, use their powers to try to dehumanize those who are human.

At almost 900 pages, this can be a daunting read, yet Simmons pulls it off. This is a “smart person’s” horror read. When the book was reissued in 2009, some felt it was dated, as there are no cell phones, etc. But the basic premise of the book is not affected by that-it is a timeless tale.

 

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Code name Verity

(2012)
code name Verity

A mesmerizing historical novel, well-researched and carefully written, this is one of those books where you want to sit down and read it straight through, not stopping for anything.

A young woman has been captured by the Gestapo after she lands in Occupied France.  She’s been tortured and starved in an attempt to gain knowledge of British defenses.  Her captor Hauptsturmführer von Linden makes a deal—she will be given paper and two weeks for her to write down everything she knows about the British war effort and he will let her live, at least for a while.  She begins writing…

The slow unfolding of the story gives you a feeling of what it would have been like—tremendous sacrifices, sadness and despair but also humor and love.  There is great characterization and strong female characters who make things happen. 

Those of you who read and liked Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games should read this book; though it is set in the past rather than a possible future, it has the same gritty desperation and determination to keep going no matter what the odds.  It is a book I definitely recommend.

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The Redgraves: A Family Epic

2012

Donald Spoto’s account of the Redgraves has the feel of a readable “intellectual” soap opera, for the talented Redgraves were well known for their work in the theatre and film world but their private lives were anything but conventional. There are many instances of infidelity, divorce, dysfunctional parenting, and the insecurities that resulted from these issues. Michael Redgrave, son of Roy Redgrave and Daisy Scudamore, is the primary focus of this expose but Vanessa Redgrave and her sister and brother, Lynn and Corin and the careers of the younger generation of Redgraves, including Natasha Richardson and her sister Joely, are examined. We learn of Michael Redgrave's struggles with his bisexuality (at a time when people were tortured and sent to prison if the authorities became aware), alcoholism, and Parkinson’s disease. Vanessa was blacklisted for her support of the Palestinian cause. The author covers familiar films such as Lynn’s Georgy Girl, and Vanessa’s Camelot and lesser known works. Spoto’s work is a thorough account. The Redgraves are portrayed as a down to earth close-knit family with their share of struggles. Some may consider the Redgraves to be a theatrical dynasty but as Vanessa Redgrave simply says, “We are family.”

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