Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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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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Tha Abandoned

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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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

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

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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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


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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Defending Jacob


Expectations of trust, loyalty, and unconditional love between parent and child are put to the ultimate test in William Landay's "Defending Jacob." The comfortable, suburban lives enjoyed by Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber, his wife Laurie, and 14 year old son Jacob are shattered when the lifeless body of Jacob's middle school classmate Ben Rifkin is discovered in a Newton, Massachusetts park.  Evidence implicating Jacob Barber as the suspected killer continues to mount, and it isn't long before his father is removed from his role as prosecutor for the case.  The arrest of their son devastates the parents, and Andy and Laurie struggle desperately to believe in Jacob's innocence while the strength of their once solid marriage begins to erode.  The inevitable murder charge isolates the family within their own neighborhood and community.  The phone and the doorbell stop ringing, friends withdraw, and strangers whisper.  The couple find themselves feeling as though they are being judged as accomplices to the actions for which their son has been accused.  As the story of defending Jacob unfolds and the teenager heads to trial, Andy becomes obsessed with a plan to reveal a known child molester as the true suspect, Laurie becomes a shell of the vibrant woman she used to be, and Jacob withdraws further into himself.  

For readers who enjoy a crime novel with riveting courtroom drama, William Landay's rendition will not disappoint.  The once upon a time prosecutor, Andy Barber, finds himself in the witness chair facing Neal Loguidice: the over enthusiastic Assistant District Attorney who "stole" Andy's job.  The taut writing, excellent dialogue, and dramatic plot development lead to a stunning ending, and the book is literally difficult to put down.  There are plenty of discussion points promising good reasons for book clubs to gather or friends to linger over dinner.  Some of the provocative questions raised ask how far a parent should go to protect a child; suggest the existence of a "murder gene" that could be a brilliant defense or assure an automatic life sentence; and explore how well a parent can actually know a child who is brought up on today's social media that exists far beyond the shadow of a parent's watchful eye.  

Not much can be found negative about Landay's writing.  Since he was the gatekeeper of his parents' hopes and dreams, maybe more insight into the secret life of Jacob, along with his feelings, would have been a bonus.  In addition, the emotional distance between husband and wife takes away an opportunity for the two to have more discussion about the fate of their son.  However, "Defending Jacob" is definitely a satisfying read, and in spite of its length of 400 plus pages, will leave the reader wishing for more.    



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Wrapped In The Flag

A Personal History of America's Radical Right (2013)
Wrapped in the Flag

 Claire Conner was raised in the John Birch Society. Her father, Stillwell Conner was a national spokesman for JBS, and her mother, Laurene, made it her lifelong obsession. Her parents first met Robert Welch in 1955 and three years later paid a considerable sum to be life members of the JBS.

Extremism on any side (be it political, religious, or ethnic) is not pretty. More than anything, this is the story of a young girl being raised by parents who put their ideology above everything else. But in addition to this, her story gives readers a "fly on the wall" perspective of the origins and beliefs of JBS.

Ms. Conner relates the events of history through the lens of ultra-conservatism. Some reactions are predictable, but others may take you by surprise. Integration, assassinations, elections, Vietnam and more are all included here.The opinions of Revilo Oliver, who became a well-known Holocaust denier, as well as the writings of Fred Koch (father of David and Charles) were frequently heard at the family breakfast table.

Claire was a Pro Life spokesperson, but her concern didn’t end there, it extended to life beyond birth. This became one of what would be many dividing points between Claire and her parents, who believed everyone was responsible for their own welfare. They stood for what Robert Welch called a “healthy kind of poverty….that was offset by the enormous blessings of freedom.”  

This is Claire's story of her journey from unquestioning devotion to her parents, and their ideology, to being able to understand and accept other viewpoints. This book is not without bias, but it is well written and provides incredible insight into the origins of the right wing movement in this country. This is especially relevant given today’s headlines about the far right claiming responsibility for shutting down the government and the familiar names behind movements such as “Americans for Prosperity.”


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Where'd You Go, Bernadette

a novel (2013)
Where'd you go, Bernadette

My attention caught by the retro cover, I read the first few pages and was hooked.

 Bernadette Fox is an award-winning architect who doesn’t build; an agoraphobic who hates Seattle, rain, and especially Canadians.  Husband Elgin is a software genius and workaholic who has grown apart from his wife.  Both of them would do anything for their daughter Bee, so when she achieves perfect grades all the way through middle school, they grant her wish for a trip to Antarctica.  Facing weeks of enforced social interaction on the cruise, Bernadette makes a plan which goes badly awry, culminating in her disappearance.

Quirky and laugh-aloud funny in spots, its social commentary includes a Victims Against Victimhood support group, helicopter parents, the social elite, software empires, and political correctness gone mad.  The mystery of what happened to Bernadette is brought to life in a series of emails, letters, and documents.  Its heart is the warm connection of mother and daughter, whatever their differences.

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Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life


Around eighth grade Georgia O’Keeffe proudly proclaimed to her classmates, I’m going to be an artist. Robinson’s extremely detailed biography follows O’Keeffe through her youthful years in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin through her death at age 98 in New Mexico. Georgia is well- known for her large paintings of close up flowers, skulls, and magnificent skies. Her relationship with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz was integral to her success as he introduced her work to the public at his famous 291 Gallery located at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City. There were 1800 letters and telegrams during their long time together. O’Keeffe was his lover during his marriage to his first wife and Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were married from 1924-1946. O’Keeffe’s personality was full of contradiction dating back to the strong influence of her family. There were many strong women yet O’Keeffe succumbed to the paternalistic influence of Stieglitz who was close to the age of her mother. He refused to allow her to have a child. In her later years she developed a strong relationship with a man 60 years her junior. He took advantage of her wealth and notoriety as she gradually lost her eye sight and became increasingly frail. In the end, O’Keeffe’s large body of work became her legacy.

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