Posts Tagged ‘Ruth F.’s Picks’

Best ‘New to Us” Books in 2014: Ruth F’s Picks

December 19, 2014

I am a children’s librarian in Holly Springs. Next year, I will celebrate my 40th birthday and will most likely be fitted for my first pair of bifocals. Here are five books, some written by my contemporaries and others about middle age, that I recommend for those of you still able to read small print in dim lighting.

Life After DeathLife After Death by Damien Echols
Author Damien Echols was born just a few months before me and he would have graduated high school the same year I did — had he been born into the same world of middle class privilege that I was. Instead, he spent the first 18 years of his life in and economically depressed Arkansas hamlet. As teenagers, when I was fretting over my SAT scores, he was fretting over the verdict of his capital murder trial.  When I went off to college, he went off to Death Row. Then, after spending his first 18 years of adulthood in prison, Echols and two others incarcerated in connection with the same crime were released when DNA evidence was tested and deemed exculpatory. Shortly after, he landed a deal to publish a memoir based on the journals he kept in prison. I challenge any member of Generation X to read Echols’ story without noticing similar parallels between his life and ours.

Good in a CrisisGood in a Crisis by Margaret Overton
Sometimes, the best books are the ones you most love to hate. When life handed baby boomer Margaret Overton lemons in mid-life, she tried to make lemonade by writing a memoir. But it came out a little tart. I cringed at every supposedly funny story in this memoir about the author’s Internet dating escapades. And yet, I compulsively turned page after page because it is so easy to identify with Overton. For every good choice I have made that she did not, I feel relief that her train wreck of a life can’t possibly be what’s in store for me. And for every stroke of bad luck she endured, I feel a humbling sense that it probably is.

Lean InLean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
Women like me, on the precipice of converting their households from DINK (double income, no kids) to what New York Times Columnist Pamela Druckerman famously called DITT (double income, toddler twins), will find this book fascinating. The rest of you might not be too interested in how author Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, wishes she had done more to secure reserved parking for expectant mothers at her company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. But you should read this book anyway. If you can overlook the usual gripes about late meetings and early carpools, there is a universal message about setting the terms of personal success and a refreshing new definition of what it means to be a feminist.

SisterlandSisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
This is a fiction story of twin sisters on the brink of 40. They share a psychic connection, but occupy separate sides of the Mommy divide. I’m not sure anybody will see themselves in either sister, but author Curtis Sittenfeld nailed the subtext and sanctimony between the childfree and the parents. The stay-at-home mother in the story, Kate, is affluent and secure. Mothering has given her lots of responsibility and purpose, but very little satisfaction. She is the very definition of a desperate housewife. Her childless sister, Violet, lives on the edge. By that I mean she is reckless, frivolous and completely unmoored. As the sisters decide whether to embrace the DNA that makes them the same or the choices that set them apart, their psychic prediction comes true in a way neither could have expected. Read another review.

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Who among us has not aspired to write the Great American Novel or regretted reaching middle age without having done so? Mark Zusak, that’s who. His 40th birthday is six months from now and his literary masterpiece is 10 years old. The Book Thief has earned a slew of awards, dominated best-seller lists, been canonized on high school required reading lists and been adapted for a movie. But a technicality prevents it from being called my generation’s Great American Novel: the author is Australian and the setting is Nazi Germany. It seems counter intuitive for a book about genocide in World War II Europe to also be about a post-racial American ideal. But Zusak makes it work. In this war story, humanity trumps race or creed. Young or old, Jew or Gentile, German or not, everybody faces a common enemy in the villainous narrator: Death.  Read another review.


The Big Year : a Tale of Man, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik

March 11, 2014

A big year is when birders travel from Alaska to Mexico to see or hear the most different avian species from January 1 to December 31. The Big Year by Mark Obmascik, is the true story of three birders who competed for biggest Big Year in 1998 — when several factors converged to bring a record-breaking number of species within binoculars’ range of the competition grounds. The book was also the basis for the 2011 movie starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black.

Think of it as Moby-Dick for bird nerds. Though the three protagonists never literally risk their lives like Captain Ahab did, they are just as single-minded about their quest. One risks, if not his life, at least his life savings. Another puts his livelihood at stake. And for what? Bragging rights. Anybody who has ever experienced how a pleasant pastime can become a relentless obsession will relate.

If the comparison to Moby-Dick has you certain that you don’t ever want to read this book, rest assured that author Mark Obmascik’s occasional treatises into Aleutian meteorology and human and avian nature are much more readable — and concise — than Herman Mellville’s digressions into the finer philosophical points of 19th Century whaling. I especially enjoyed the account of the ruby-throated hummingbird migration that starts Chapter Nine. It’s detailed and vivid enough that you’d believe the author made the 500 mile journey right alongside the tiny creature. Of course, he did not.

In fact, he spent zero time alongside his human subjects in 1998. His precise and vivid account of what each of the three contenders was seeing, thinking, feeling and experiencing during the Big Year comes entirely from after-the-fact interviews, from the birders’ field notes, personal journals, and receipts, and from the author’s own meticulous shoe leather reporting. “I relied on the old credo of trust but verify,” Obmascik writes in the acknowledgements page. “If a contestant recalled that he saw a bird a half hour before dawn with a half-moon still in the sky, I checked out government records for that day’s sunrise and moonset.”

Non-fiction readers will appreciate the fact-checking, especially since the official world record set during the contest required only that the winner give his word that he saw and heard what he said he did.

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All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps edited by Dave Isay

June 25, 2012

Remember those how-we-met vignettes that punctuated the 1989 classic When Harry Met Sally? The two who were born days apart in the same hospital and grew up in the same apartment building but never met until, as a young adult, he rode up nine extra floors just to keep talking to her? The man who married his high school sweetheart, then divorced her, then fell in love with her all over again and re-married her thirty-five years (and several wives) later?

If you were charmed by those, you will probably also enjoy All There Is : Love Stories From StoryCorps, edited and with an introduction by Dave Isay. Unlike most of Wake County Library’s audiobooks, there are no readers or actors in All There Is — just real people telling their own love stories in their own words to their children and families. The stories were recorded through Storycorps, an oral history project that allows regular people 40 minutes to interview a loved one about any topic in a recording booth. The best interviews are edited and then broadcast and podcast on National Public Radio. The one-disc, one-hour audiobook retains the documentary-style sound and the feel of a radio interview or podcast. Each 40-minute session is edited down to three or four minutes and most contain the voices of both interviewer and storyteller.

Some stories are stranger-than-fiction fun, like the pair who meet only because their email addresses are separated by just one character, though their physical addresses are oceans apart. And some are tear-jerking and poignant, like the Army widower who dispatched his own wife to the war zone where she died. All of them end with several seconds of mood music to guarantee that listeners experience the emotional after-effects they’d expect from any expertly-crafted short story.

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The Sibling Effect: Brothers, Sisters, and the Bonds that Define Us by Jeffrey Kluger

March 1, 2012

Sibling relationships are special. We have more in common with our siblings than with anyone else in the world — genetically speaking, at least. And for most people, no other relationship spans as many years as one with a sibling. But because of the enormous variation in family sizes and configurations, sibling relationships have always been difficult for social scientists to study.

Author Jeffrey Kluger makes a valiant effort to summarize the research so far. Using vignettes from his own life, reports about the family life of celebrities and evidence from academic studies, he comments on birth order, step-siblings, gender identity, twins, and  growing old with siblings.

Anybody who was raised in a family – in any sort of family – will find plenty of food for thought about how their siblings (or their singleton status) shaped who they grew up to become. Some of his observations you’ve probably heard before – for example, eldest children and only children are more likely to go to law school and youngest children are more likely to go to clown school. Some of the observations that were new to me seemed completely pointless, yet uncannily square with my own experiences – for example, eldest children are less likely to enjoy roller coasters and youngest children are less likely to organize their sock drawers. Little tidbits like that make this book a fun, quick read.

I recommend it with one just caveat: Kluger’s approach involves broad overviews of a field of research still in its infancy. There is scant advice on managing sibling relationships. There are more questions than he answers. The analysis is often ambiguous and tentative. Those who like having something to think about will enjoy the book, but those who want to know what to think will not be satisfied with the book’s untidy conclusions.

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The Woman Who Can’t Forget by Jill Price

January 6, 2012

What if you could save each day of your life as a .pdf or .mp3 file? Later, when you needed to remember or just reminisce, you could open the file and relive any given day as if it were yesterday, recalling  not just what you did and who you were with, but every detail of what you saw, read or heard, what you ate,  and how you felt.

Jill Price, the first person to be officially diagnosed with a Super Autobiographical Memory, can instantly furnish details such as the day of the week, what she wore, what the weather was like, or what was in the news for any given date since 1980, when she was 14 years old. But, Jill considers her uncannily detailed memory more of an affliction than an ability. In fact, the full title of this book is “The Woman Who Can’t Forget: the Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science: a Memoir.”

Her discovery as a child that her memory works differently from others’, her decision to seek treatment for her condition, called hyperthymesia, and her reaction when she learned that there are no other documented cases of brains like hers are the only interesting parts of her otherwise unremarkable life. Still, anyone who is writing (or even contemplating) her own memoir will relish the way Price experiences writer’s block, despite her compulsive journaling. When every experience is unforgettable, how can she decide which memories define her?

And readers who enjoy mind-brain connection stories by popular science writers such as Oliver Sacks and V. S. Ramachandran will enjoy this similar account told from the perspective of the patient.  Plus, anybody who has ever cursed their own faulty memory or marveled at the way the Facebook generation can and does automatically commit to an electronic memory even the most mundane details of everyday life will have plenty to ponder with Price’s ideas about the therapeutic value of forgetting.

Don’t forget about this book, find and reserve it now in our catalog.

Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh by Gerald Grant

July 25, 2011

Everybody knows that there has recently been enough drama on the Wake County School Board to fill a book. But did you know that somebody actually filled one? In May 2009, Syracuse University professor Gerald Grant published his 226-page treatise about why the Wake County School System’s system of drawing school attendance zones to equalize the ratio of  impoverished children at each school was a policy other school systems should copy. Six months after the book was published, Wake County residents voted in a new school board majority who favored abolishing the economic diversity policy that Grant extolled.

This book is a quick read for anybody who wants background information on the unfolding political saga. A short history back to the days of segregation provides a good explanation of the national political forces that shaped the local economic diversity policy. And those who want to better understand the perspective of the School Board majority led by chairman Ron Margiotta, who previously served on a school board in the Northeast, will appreciate the contrast between Wake County Schools and the public schools in the author’s hometown of Syracuse, New York.

Just keep in mind as you are reading that author Gerald Grant is an academic. Although he said in an interview with The Independent Weekly that his two grandsons are Wake County School pupils, he clearly does not draw his conclusions as a Wake County stakeholder would. His evidence in favor of the policy hinges on test scores and a few school visits chaperoned by administrators and does not include any testimony about individual families’ experiences.

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The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back by Kevin & Hannah Salwen

June 14, 2011

This is the story of an Atlanta family who decided to sell their million-dollar historic mansion and use half the proceeds to build two grain mills in impoverished rural Ghana. It is exactly as sanctimonious as it sounds. And that’s what makes it so fun.

The serious stuff is there, too. Book clubs will have plenty to chew over the family’s decision to spend their $800,000 in Africa, fully aware that the $2 trillion-plus in African aid in the last half-century has never made a lasting dent in the poverty rate there. Anybody deeply invested in a charitable cause will identify with the family’s kitchen table discussions over issues such as whether it is better to help a few people in a big way or a lot of people in a small way. And school groups and families will appreciate the book’s cross-generational appeal, thanks to sidebars written by teenaged Hannah Salwen.

But when the family isn’t wringing their hands over the poor, they are the very picture of consumerism run amok. An antique hearth and ornate mantle in the bedroom of a 14-year-old girl? Commuting to a play date in a private jet? “”Downsizing”” to a 3,000-plus square-foot house?

Author Kevin Salwen relates these decadent details with chagrin, and he professes a desire to get off the consumption treadmill. Still, he is careful to never let readers forget how rich he is, even after giving half to the poor. Some people looking for an inspirational tale of charitable sacrifice will be put by the book’s smug, self-congratulatory tone. But fans of reality television featuring wealthy housewives or vapid B-list celebrities will find that this book unintentionally provides the same sort of voyeuristic guilty pleasure.

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The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

January 28, 2011

In December 2000, Wes Moore made the pages of the Baltimore Sun twice in
one day. One story was about a native son who was headed to Oxford
University on a Rhodes scholarship. The other was about a suspected cop
killer on the loose.

The book recounts conversations that took place when the Rhodes Scholar met the convicted felon in prison to try to get some understanding of why fate
had been so kind to him and so rough to his same-name counterpart.

The story will have vicarious appeal if you have ever imagined meeting your
Google twins, those mysterious people who use your name but are not you and whose information comes up when you type your names into a search engine. Fans of Malcom Gladwell’s vignettes about little coincidences that alter the course of a life will also appreciate this book-length story along the
same theme.

What you won’t find in this book is any of the biting commentary on social
justice that the book’s premise seems ripe for.  Throughout the book, the
author gently encourages support for agencies and organizations that create
opportunities for the disenfranchised, but shies away from taking credit
for his own accomplishments or laying blame for the course of the title
character’s life.

At nearly 400 pages of dense text, this book pushed the limits of how much
time and attention I am generally willing to devote to one story. But I
become so absorbed that I felt a tinge of disappointment when the book ends
just as the girls’ lives are getting started. But then again, shouldn’t any
coming of age story worth reading leave you wanting more?

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Just Like Us: the True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America by Helen Thorpe

January 26, 2011

Start with four best friends, all born in Mexico and living in Colorado. Two have official immigration papers. Two don’t.  Then read as the quartet reaches the age of legal majority. The set up sounds tailor-made for a case study, but author Helen Thorpe is a storyteller, not a social scientist.

Her political agenda compromises her objectivity from the start, and an unexpected real-life plot twist pushes Thorpe from an unbiased observer to
an active participant in the girls’ struggle for legal acceptance. Then, once the author dispenses with all pretension of journalistic detachment, her observations become suspiciously omniscient. Is her portrayal of the girls’ feelings based on things they told her? Or her own inferences? Thorpe isn’t clear and her sources aren’t saying. Because of their precarious legal positions, they have to stay anonymous.

However, the narration that makes this book such a questionable work of social research makes it an engaging coming-of-age story for adult and young adult readers alike.  Any immigrant or first-generation American will identify with the way the girls deftly toggle between two cultural worlds. Readers who are neither will still recognize the girls’ typical teen angst over being in limbo between child an adult, if not their unique struggle to sort through their  feelings about  being  raised in America, yet not wholly American.

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The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

January 24, 2011

In 1951, a poor black woman by the name of Henrietta Lacks died in Baltimore, but some cells from her cancer-stricken cervix lived on in Petri dishes and medical labs. Since then, scientists have used those cells in research that has led to all sorts of medical treatments.

There is plenty in this book to delight sci-fi readers and non-fiction readers alike who are intrigued by the stranger-than-fiction irony of using deadly cancer cells to cure disease. But the story’s intended hook concerns the ethical and social fallout when a scientific community of mostly rich white men fail to get patient consent to use the cells for research and then fail to give credit to the poor black woman whose unwitting donation made their medical breakthroughs possible.

And then there is the third angle–the one that kept me turning pages–that revolves around the unlikely friendship that develops between author Rebecca Skloot and her subject, Deborah Lacks, the youngest daughter of the woman whose cells became immortal.  With Skloot’s intervention, Lacks comes to terms with the weird science she thought she would never understand, while Lacks’ anger and stress over her mother’s ordeal causes Skloot to question everything she thought she understood about medical research.

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