Sarah’s Picks


Have you checked out our Facebook page lately? If not, you now have another reason to since Sarah has been reviewing her favorite reads. In case you missed them, four are published here for your enjoyment. Go Sarah go!

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

beingmortalcoverThe author has simple prose on a highly complex topic. As a surgeon and author, he looks at the successes of modern medicine, and how it can prolong life, and attempt to stave off the inevitable. As many Americans age, our health care system has morphed into something that wants to increase longevity, but at what expense to emotional and quality of life? Gawande illustrates the evolution of the nursing home, what their original developers intended, and how industry has taken over. What used to be assisted living in people’s own homes, with as little intervention as possible, has morphed into a complex, multi-billion dollar industry, where individual control and autonomy has been taken away. He looks at how we value our elders in this country, and what we can do to make sure our loved ones have their wishes fulfilled in the end. This is a hard look at a subject that most people want to avoid. But he gracefully documents evidence on how to make the unavoidable process of death more pleasurable. He draws on his own experience with his dying father that is both touching and sincere. A good book for anyone wanting to work on living wills or end of life conversations.

Missoula:Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

missoulacoverThis is a tough but important read. Krakauer examined years of mishandling of rape cases at the University of Montana. Various agencies veered from the proper channels, and did not adequately prosecute the cases. The university is home to a beloved football team, and when some of its players were accused of rape, the community was split. Victims were not treated well by police, and faced public humiliation and shame, while some of the accused walked free, without the cases being properly looked into. The entire fiasco got so out of hand that the Department of Justice was brought in to investigate. Krakauer does an excellent job looking at the root causes of what went wrong, and sheds light on the victim’s predicaments, as their cases are dismissed. This book reminds us that rape happens more than we think…and the majority of cases are not reported to authorities. I admire the strength these women had, in order to testify against their attackers. I only wish the authorities had done more to make sure the criminals were prosecuted at trial. This is Krakauer’s latest installment; he’s best known for ‘Into the Wild’ and ‘Into Thin Air.’

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

deliciousfoodscoverDelicious Foods by James Hannaham is a unique book where crack cocaine is almost a reliable narrator. The drug tells it like it is, and recaps the trials and tribulations of one of his biggest fans, Darlene. Darlene turned to crack after the murder of her activist husband, Nat. Their only child, Eddie, is left to fend for himself, as his mother becomes increasingly addicted and withdrawn. Darlene is picked up one day in a minivan, which promises her steady work and an even steadier supply of crack. Darlene is whisked away to Delicious Foods, a type of labor camp, where addicts toll and sweat away, in exchange for a constant high. Eddie is abandoned and attempts to locate his mom, and eventually ends up at Delicious as well. This book is reminiscent of the slave trade, human trafficking, and had elements of addiction, family dynamics, and greed. Difficult to digest at times, but a completely unique storyline with quite a remarkable cast of shady characters. I think this one might be seeing some awards in its future.

Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes

barbaracoverThis catchy title proves to be a worthy debut collection of short stories. Holmes’s voice is honest, and her tales of young relationships showcase her likeable and realistic characters. In “Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall in Love,” a woman falls fast and madly in love. But her pet pit bull hates her new boyfriend.. As their relationship progresses, the novelty of him wears off and she finds herself increasingly irritated, while her dog warms up to his presence. “Desert Hearts” showcases a couple, recently graduated from law school living in San Francisco. The young man is hard working in a new firm, while the woman finds part-time work at a local sex toy store, and deals with the consequences from her friends and family. Barbara, in the title story, has set her sights on Princeton after high school graduation. She is able to ignore the taunts from her peers, and focuses on helping her autistic brother and her academic future. Holmes debut is fresh, relatable and easy to digest. A perfect quick read for the end of summer.

Books I Like

What do ennui in suburban Connecticut, a murder in the Basque country of Spain and a colony based on sun worship and coconuts in the South Seas have in common? Not much really, except the fact they feature prominently in three novels I recently read and enjoyed. I can usually find some kind of link between the books I like but I’m at a loss on these three, alas. So I will resort to expressing myself like the grammatically challenged Frankenstein’s monster (the one played by Boris Karloff not the Mary Shelley version): Three books. Me like.

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

wondergardenThe characters in this series of interlocking short stories, set in the fictional Connecticut town of Old Cranbury, may seem very familiar at first. Much like the characters that inhabit the stories of John Cheever and Richard Yates, they tend to suffer from the classic east coast suburban turmoil of suddenly questioning their roles at work and at home. But in many of the stories, Acampora adds a touch of the odd that makes this collection stand out. There is the wealthy business man who bribes his wife’s surgeon to get closer to her than ever before in the operating room, the aging art professor who risks life and limb to decorate his neighbor’s house with large synthetic insects, and the colonial history reenactors who resort to breaking and entering to preserve the neighborhood’s architectural integrity.  While these tales can be strange and at times disturbing they are also funny and entertaining in a ‘misery loves company’ sort of way.

All That Followed: A Novel by Gabriel Urza

Tallthatfollowedhe murder of a Spanish politician in the small village of Muriga by a group of Basque separatists serves as the central event in this debut novel. The book isn’t a ‘who done it’, however, but rather a ‘why did they do it.’ In getting to the why, it becomes clear that politics is of minimal importance. Instead the reader gets a multilayered view of the village and its inhabitants with the story jumping in time and place to better get at the complexity of the situation. There are three narrators, each offering a unique perspective: Joni, an English teacher from the U.S. who has been living in Muriga for half a century, Mariana, the widow of the slain politician and Iker, a former student of Joni’s and a participant in the murder. The multiple perspectives, combined with the author’s excellent use of language and tone, help to peel back the layers of meaning. A truth, of sorts, is revealed that feels authentic but gives no easy answers.

Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas by Christian Kracht

imperiumBased on an amazing but true story, this novel tells the tale of August Engelhardt who in 1902 set sail for German New Guinea in the south seas to found a colony based on the worship of the sun, an exclusive diet of coconuts, and nudity. As you might guess, things didn’t turn out so well for Mr. Engelhardt and the author uses his plight to create a satiric fable skewering the allure of extremism and its inherent danger. The absurdist tone of the book is enhanced by the author’s writing style which often uses the language of classic adventure tales and at its best, a bit of Joseph Conrad. The story is mainly set on Engelhardt’s coconut plantation as things begin to fall apart but it bounces around in place and time to include cameos by odd figures such as the inventor of Vegemite spread and a fraudulent guru who believes he can live on sunshine exclusively. While difficult to categorizes, it is safe to say that Imperium is a playful and biting satire about an ultimately serious subject.

While the connections between these three books elude me, I do know one thing: They are well worth your limited reading time.

Listen Up! New Music Arrivals for October

Black Violin Cover

Grab some hot new albums to warm up your fall nights. These are my top new arrivals for October: place your holds now!

Black Violin – Stereotypes (Classical Crossover) an engaging fusion of classical, hip-hop, funk, and RnB. Thought-provoking lyrics are layered over a rich tapestry of classical arrangements, driven ever forward by an ebb and flow of hip-hop beats. Playful instrumental tracks make the closet dancer in me want to find a choreographer to start planning some routines. This album has so much to offer such a wide spectrum of listeners that I can’t help but love it

Girlpool CoverGirlpool – Before The World Was Big (Wichita Recordings) Rocker duo Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad prove that less is more in their latest release. Before the World was Big manages to be bright, airy, and delightfully ragged around the edges: part punk, part folk. All of this is accomplished with a guitar, bass, and sans drums. Girlpool reminds me just a bit of some of The Breeders’ later material: simple and wonderful.

Apollo Saturday Night CoverVarious – Apollo Saturday Night/Saturday Night at the Uptown (Real Gone Music) This collection is absolutely packed full of classic soul hits from the 1960s. I love the raw energy of the live performances, amped up a notch because you can hear the young crowd wildly screaming and singing along to their favorites. It’s so easy to close your eyes and imagine how much fun it must have been to be on the dance floor at one of these shows.

Julio Bashmore CoverJulio Bashmore – Knockin’ Boots (Sony Music Entertainment) for long-term veterans of the electronic music scene, house music never went away; for the general public there’s a revival of sorts going on right now. Julio Bashmore is one of the happy byproducts of this renewed interest. This album isn’t another rehashing of well-worn stylistic elements to pander to old-school purists;  it pulls from a wide range of electronic music genres to create tracks that are a fresh look at the synthy Warehouse-style house music of the 80s.

Arcs Cover ImageThe Arcs – Yours, Dreamily (Nonesuch Records) A smooth, blues-rock and RnB album that’s hard to pin down. Yours Dreamily is an apt title for the vibe. It meanders its way through psychedelic and trip-hop bursts from track to track, always with gritty reverb-soaked overtones to punch things up a notch.

Spot-Lit for October 2015


Click here to see all these titles in the library catalog, read reviews, or place holds. Or click a book cover to enlarge it or to view the covers as a slide show.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

Oregon Trail

Please don’t laugh at me, but The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck is currently my favorite book. It’s hard to explain, but let me try. The book is hilarious while being thoughtful and packed full of history. There are scenes that are so hair-raising that I had to keep checking to make sure the author really made it to Oregon.

This work is a deeply moving and beautifully written memoir that tells the story of making a modern-day 2,500 mile trip with a mule driven covered wagon along the path of the Oregon Trail. While making his journey, Buck relates: the history of the Oregon Trail, Mormons in the West, and of mules, the pitfalls of wagon purchasing from the Amish, the kindness of strangers in the American West, and why so many children are being raised by their grandparents in Nebraska. More than this, it is Rinker Buck’s description of his complicated and unresolved relationship with his driven father that serves as the emotional trail-heart of this book. I loved every page. This book is a great way to “see America slowly.”


I recently drove the Oregon Trail (quickly!) while travelling from Washington State to Idaho and back. I snapped this photo of what you typically see while driving the old Oregon Trail these days: two straight lanes of highway dotted with semi trucks and passenger cars. It’s a relatively easy drive these days, unless you encounter foul weather over the Blue Mountains. I especially love driving in Idaho where the posted speed is 80 miles per hour. While in Idaho, we were lucky enough to watch the largest non-motorized parade in the west. There were young girls riding bare back and without bridles, and countless old wagons and buggies pulled by mules, horses, and ponies. I’ll include my video of the twenty mule team pulling no less than five wagons here:

Here are some other interesting materials on the Oregon Trail that can be found at the library. They will surely round out your knowledge of that complex and colossal migration.

indexThe Oregon Trail: An American Saga by David Day is the definitive one-volume and complete history of the Oregon Trail from its earliest beginnings to the present. It’s chock full of maps, photographs, diary excerpts and illustrations that give a very detailed picture of this American saga. As the book blurb says: “Above all, The Oregon Trail offers a panoramic look at the romance, colorful stories, hardships, and joys of the pioneers who made up this tremendous and historic migration.”

For an original recording made in Portland, Oregon in May of 1941 by Woody Guthrie, be sure to check out the Columbia River Collection. Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power administration to write music for a film about power and the Columbia River. Songs include: The Oregon Trail, Roll on Columbia, and Hard Travelin’. We unfortunately don’t have a photo of this CD in our library catalog, but the music is fantastic.

index (3)If you want to eat like the early pioneers, Wagon Wheel Kitchens: Food on the Oregon Trail by Jacqueline Williams is the book for you! This book puts you squarely on the Oregon Trail: baking bread in a Dutch oven over a campfire, searing buffalo meat, and trading for fresh vegetables and fish. Through emigrant diaries and recipes of the day, the author reconstructs meals that fed the emigrants as they crossed the Plains. To understand the contribution of trail women to the migration, simply try one of Williams’s ‘pinch and a handful’ recipes – and do it over an open fire in a rainstorm.

index (1)The Oregon Trail: A Photographic Journey is by Bill & Jan Moeller. The authors meticulously traced and captured on film the remnants of the Oregon Trail-surprisingly intact in many places.The resulting full-color photographs, accompanied by selected entries from emigrant diaries, evoke for the modern reader the frontier: strange, harsh, and beautiful-as the emigrants saw it.

index (2)Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival by Peter Stark came highly recommended by a friend when he learned that I loved Buck’s Oregon Trail book. This story is simply a good adventure! It features a ship journey with threat of hostile boarding, wicked storms and the political ambition of Jefferson combined with the global trade scheme of Astor. It also features an overland journey with mountain passes, raging rivers, threat of native attack, and near starvation. In the end, the colony did change the trajectory of settlement on the west coast. It paved the way for the Oregon Trail, coming as it did just a few years after the Lewis and Clark expedition.

To travel the Oregon Trail from the comfort of your own home, come on down to the library and check out these wonderful materials! See you there.

Crazy Fall Publishing Part 5: September 29th

Hey there. What’s up with me? I’m drowning in new books. NBD! The things I do for you, dear reader. Yep, I’m definitely coveting and eventually reading all these books for you. No need to thank me, but if you do you can forward your good words straight to my boss. Performance appraisal time is just around the corner and a good word from you is sure to go a long way.

Anyway, I’ve been counting the days since these new books arrive, and I hope you’ll want to read them, too. Check them out–literally!

all american boysAll American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Summary: A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galuzzi, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement? But there were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.
Why I’m stoked: As previously mentioned on this blog, I’m from Alton, IL, a small town across the Mississippi from Ferguson, MO. I don’t think I have to tell you how upset I’ve been to see my neighbors, friends, and family rocked by community violence and mistrust. Books like this one are necessary and welcome. I plan to read it and The Ferguson Report back-to-back. I may be known for my preference for fluffy and frivolous reads, but this is one I know will be difficult for me–and I honestly can’t wait.

madlyMadly by Amy Alward
Summary: When the Princess of Nova accidentally poisons herself with a love potion meant for her crush, she falls crown-over-heels in love with her own reflection. Oops. A nationwide hunt is called to find the cure, with competitors travelling the world for the rarest ingredients, deep in magical forests and frozen tundras, facing death at every turn. Enter Samantha Kemi – an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent. Sam’s family were once the most respected alchemists in the kingdom, but they’ve fallen on hard times, and winning the hunt would save their reputation. But can Sam really compete with the dazzling powers of the ZoroAster megapharma company? Just how close is Sam willing to get to Zain Aster, her dashing former classmate and enemy, in the meantime? And just to add to the pressure, this quest is ALL OVER social media. And the world news. No big deal, then.
Why I’m stoked: Fantasy and humor. Romance and adventure. And a cover that launched a thousand Instagram posts (if you didn’t see this pop up in your feed in recent weeks you are following the wrong people, my friend). Oh, my goodness. And it’s also book one in a series. Be still my beating heart. I just know this is going to be a fantastic read.

sanctuarySanctuary by Jennifer McKissack
Summary: After the untimely death of her aunt Laura, Cecilia Cross is forced to return to Sanctuary, a rambling, old French-Gothic mansion that crowns a remote island off the coast of Maine. Cecilia is both drawn to and repulsed by Sanctuary. The scent of the ocean intoxicates her, but she’s also haunted by the ghosts of her past–of her father who died at Sanctuary five years ago, and of her mother who was committed soon after. The memories leave Cecilia feeling shaken, desperate to run away and forget her terrible family history. But then a mysterious guest arrives at Sanctuary: Eli Bauer, a professor sent to examine Sanctuary’s library. Cecilia is intrigued by this strange young man who seems so interested in her — even more interested in her than in the books he is meant to be studying. Who is he and what does he want? Can Cecilia possibly trust her growing feelings for him? And can he help her make peace with her haunted, tragic past?
Why I’m stoked: I know the two plots are not the same at all, but reading this synopsis reminded me so strongly of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that I felt compelled to put it on my TBR. While I love ghost stories, I confess it’s been an age since I’ve read a good Gothic. And the fact that a personal library plays a prominent role in the book kind of makes me crave reading it even more.

zeroesZeroes by Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti
Summary: Ethan, aka “Scam,” has a way with words. When he opens his mouth, whatever he wants you to hear comes out. But Ethan isn’t just a smooth talker. He has a unique ability to say things he doesn’t consciously even know. Sometimes the voice helps, but sometimes it hurts – like now, when the voice has lied and has landed Ethan in a massive mess. So now Ethan needs help. And he needs to go to the last people who would ever want to help him – his former group of friends, the self-named “Zeroes” who also all possess similarly double-edged abilities, and who are all angry at Ethan for their own respective reasons. Brought back together by Scam’s latest mischief, they find themselves entangled in an epic, whirlwind adventure packed with as much interpersonal drama as mind-bending action.
Why I’m stoked: On the plus side, I’ve never read a Scott Westerfeld book, so this makes me feel pretty adventurous. On the downside, I almost across the board loathe dystopian novels. However, the abilities the Zeroes posses make me second-guess my dystopian disgust. This one is going to be book one of at least a trilogy, so if I really love it I can look forward to delving into more stories later.

I should probably take a photograph of my TBR for dramatic effect. However, it would be so much taller than me it may topple over and land me with an injury that may prevent me from reading. Tragic!

It’s All About That Death

meearldyinggirlOh, Jesus. Not another girl dying from cancer book. It seems like I just got over John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and now I’ve decided to pick up a book about a teenager with leukemia? That is what I thought when I took home Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. Why’d I take it home then? I’m a sucker for a good death. Or even a bad one. But as I got into it (and it is a FAST read) I found that this book is SO not about another dying teen girl. This book is about a goofy kid who sees himself as little more than a complete screw up.

The novel begins with Greg telling his story by writing a book. He’s in his senior year of high school and doing fine living on the periphery of things, not really having friends but o.k. with every group at school: the Goths, the jocks, the stoners, the theatre kids, etc. He has a sometime friend named Earl who he likes to make films with.

Earl is in my top ten favorite book characters. He’s a ghetto kid living in a falling apart house with half a dozen half siblings while his mom drinks from morning to night, keeps herself confined to an upstairs room and spends hours in online chat rooms. Earl is a foul-mouthed runt. No wonder I liked him so much. Here’s an Earl sampling:

  • Mr Cubaly want you to do some test while you in here but I got no idea how that supposed to happen so my advice is don’t worry about it
  • Oh I went to see your girl again
  • She got a bald-ass head right now
  • She look like Darth Vader without the helmet
  • Chemo is no joke, son

Greg’s feeling on top of the world because his senior year isn’t turning out as awful as he expected and then his mom tells him his former friend Rachel has leukemia. Rachel was someone he went to Hebrew school with when they were both 11. She had a little crush on him. He liked a girl with big boobs. Greg and Rachel stopped being friends (even though they had a couple of classes together and sat right next to each other) so he has a hard time trying to explain to his mom that it’d be more than awkward for him to show up and say “Hey. You have cancer. My mom said I had to be nice to you.”

He decides to go over to her house anyway, no matter how weird it might be. He makes her laugh. There’s no spark or feeling of long-lost love. She’s a girl he used to know who has cancer and now he’s forced to be nice to her because his mom told him to. And then he finds himself looking forward to hanging out with her.

Meanwhile, Greg and Earl make terrible films that only Greg’s family knows about. One of them is about Greg’s cat but cats aren’t cooperative actors. Who knew? Soon Earl comes along on Greg’s visits to Rachel. On one of these visits, while he and Greg are accidentally high, they tell her that they make films. They swear her to secrecy because they already feel their movies are crap and they don’t want anyone else to know how crappy they are. Greg hangs out on the edges of life, he’s failing school; Earl’s brothers are in gangs, selling/doing drugs; Rachel is dying. Life is falling apart.

Greg can’t get out of emotional tight spots by being funny (You can’t? I am so screwed.) My favorite line from the book sums up my life pretty accurately:

This book probably makes it seem like I hate myself and everything I do. But that’s not totally true. I mostly just hate every person I’ve ever been.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is an unsentimental look at death, high school, and the question of “What the hell am I going to do with my life?” (If anyone knows the answer to that last question please let me know because I’m still trying to figure it out.) Underneath a sarcastic and hilarious shell, this book is all heart and hope, but not the smarmy “Life’s going to be great!” kind of heart and hope. I wouldn’t force that kind of book on you guys.