Archives for category: Book Reviews

index.aspxWorking at the reference desk I often learn about books by readers asking for help – either in locating the desired title or finding the next title in a series. Some titles peak my interest but with so many good books to read I lose track of the title/author.

Such was the case with Jill Eileen Smith’s historical fiction books on women of the Bible. Fortunately, I spotted the latest on the New Fiction shelves reminding me of my interest.

Redeeming Grace: Ruth’s Story is actually the third in the Daughters of the Promised Land series. However, the series is a theme not a continuation so you can read out of order and not feel as though you are missing anything. If you are a stickler for order, the library has the first two in the series “The Crimson Cord: Rehab’s Story” and “The Prophetess: Deborah’s Story”.

Ruth’s story is also the story of Naomi. Naomi lived in Bethlehem with her husband Elimelech, sons Mahlon and Chilion, and their extended family. In 1296 B.C. Bethlehem and Israel were suffering through drought and eventual famine. Elimelech’s brother Boaz had convinced him to keep working the land despite the drought.

But after 2 years he stopped listening to Boaz and gave up hoping and praying for rain. He made the decision to take his sons to Moab and work the fields there. Naomi did not want to leave Bethlehem but would not let them go without her so the whole family made the journey to Dibon. Ruth and her friend Orpah were at the marketplace when the family arrived and were the first to offer a welcome.

Elimelech was able to secure land from the governor and soon prospered in Moab. His crops flourished and he was able to build a home for his family. Naomi remained true to her faith but her husband and sons were seduced by the festivals and lifestyle of the Moabites spending more and more evenings in Dibon. One such evening Elimelech didn’t come home. Naomi found his body in the road; he had been mauled by a bear.

With the death of her husband Naomi tried to convince her sons to return to Bethlehem. However, the beauties Ruth and Orpah had caught the eye of her sons and they declared their intention to stay and marry.

The custom in Moab was for fathers to choose husbands for their daughters. Ruth and Orpah had both lost their fathers in the war with Israel meaning they could make the choice of who they would marry. Ruth’s mother and the governor planned for Ruth to marry his son, Te’oma. She wanted no part of that arrangement and readily accepted Mahlon’s request to marry.

Ruth’s story truly begins when she marries and becomes Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Ruth’s devotion to her new family and the growth of her faith sustain her through the many trials she faces. Heartache, loss and hardship test both women but Ruth remains hopeful for a better life and a second chance for love.

This dramatization of Ruth’s life is well done and an engrossing read.  Smith’s research on life and customs of the Israelites and Moabites offers readers a glimpse into what life was like during Ruth’s time.

You can enjoy it without ever having read Ruth in the Old Testament. If you have read it, you’ll find that Smith has crafted a novel that captures the lesson of love exemplified by Ruth in the book.

photoarkWow! Hundreds of amazing photographs fill the pages of The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals by Joel Sartore from the fine folks at National Geographic. Sartore has spent most of the last decade travelling around the world to zoos, wildlife centers, private homes and wherever animals live under human care to photograph as many species as he can. So far, that’s over 6,000 species, several hundred of which are included here. He is the founder of National Geographic’s Photo Ark which hopes to add photos of every species under human care to its archive. In his introductory essay, Douglas Chadwick (wildlife biologist and journalist) points out that while Earth’s human population nearly doubled from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 7.5 billion now, during that same time, the number of large land animals fell by half. Ninety percent of the living land animals today are humans and their livestock. Fifty-nine percent of all large (over 33 pounds) and sixty percent of herbivores over 220 pounds are officially threatened with extinction. If pollution and other effects of human existence do not change, one-third of all species could be gone by 2100. Aside from the awful statistics and anxieties about extinctions and ecological disaster, it’s a lovely essay about biodiversity and what makes it a good thing, including how beautiful and interesting so many animals of all sorts are.

In his own essay, Sartore explains the genesis of the Photo Ark project. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer which caused him to take stock of his life and work as well as to try to figure out what he could do for work while staying close to home (as he normally travelled for months at a time to find animals in remote locations to photograph). He decided to do something worthwhile—photographing as many endangered animals as he could—as well as work that would not require such long trips, which made zoos and the like great places to work. He began his photo ark with a naked mole rat at the Lincoln (Nebraska) Children’s Zoo, a mile from his home. His wife has recovered, and his work continues. He plans to photograph all 12,000+ captive species over the next 15 years, making this a 25-year project.

The animals are photographed in front of either black or white paper backgrounds in studio portrait style and the layouts vary, but are carefully thought out. For instance, in Chapter One (Mirrors), one page might be a bird with various shades of blue plumage while the facing page is a similarly colored butterfly, or a praying mantis on one side with an arctic fox on the other, both with their heads cocked or a giant deep-sea roach appearing to face off with a very similarly shaped Southern three-banded armadillo.  Chapter Two (Partners) features either photos of paired/grouped animals (breeding pairs or friends or littermates, mother and cub and whatnot) or opposite pages of “birds and bees” or “owl and pussycat” and so on. Chapter Three (Opposites) focuses on the unlike or antagonistic (snail and cheetah, Siamese fighting fish, a tiny katydid and a huge stick insect, etc.). “Curiosities” are featured in Chapter Four, your echidnas, platypuses, tarsiers, and other unusual animals along with strangely posed animals or pairings. Finally, Chapter Five presents “Stories of Hope.” Animals like the Bali mynah, rescued by a captive breeding program and re-introduced to the wild or our own Kirtland’s warbler, the rarest songbird in North America. A happy accident (a controlled fire that got out of hand) enabled scientists (in cooperation with nature) to reclaim the habitat necessary for their survival. The birds only nest in 10-foot tall or shorter Jack pines and, given those again via fire and plantings, are now making a comeback. Golden Lion tamarins are being bred in captivity and released to the wild in a repopulation effort that appears to be paying off. By the way, their “cousins”, the cotton-top tamarin, are the focus of Springfield’s Dickinson Park Zoo’s Proyecto Titi, a conservation effort to help preserve it, one of the most endangered primates in the wild.

Each photo is captioned with the animal’s species and its level of existential threat according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So, EX equals extinct, EW is extinct in the wild, CR is critically endangered, EN is endangered, VU stands for vulnerable, NT is near threatened, LC means least concern, DD indicates data deficient, and NE means not evaluated.

There are a few scattered pages of “behind the scenes” looks at some of the photo shoots, capturing some of the methodology used in getting these extraordinary photos. Also distributed throughout are several “heroes” who have dedicated themselves to assorted conservation efforts, including raptor recovery, endangered primates, extinct in the wild pheasants, and others. The book concludes with an index of the animals photographed including the zoo or other center where the animal was photographed along with their web address.

Open to any random page and enjoy and, to cap it off, learn a bit about conservation efforts and why we need them.

 

Make: Getting Started with 3D Printing by Liza Wallach Kloski and Nick Kloski

Raspberry Pi Electronics Projects for the Evil Genius by Donald Norris

Unscrewed: Salvage and Reuse Motors, Gears, Switches, and More from Your Old Electronics by Ed Sobey

The library is chock full of excitement this May.  In addition to preparations for our move to the new building, we are gearing up for the annual summer reading program.  This year’s summer reading slogan is “Build A Better World” highlighting design, construction, and other STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) activities—a great match with the opening of the new facility.  All ages are welcome to participate in the reading program or events or both.  Stay tuned to the library’s website http://joplinpubliclibrary.org/ and Facebook page for details about summer reading and the move.

Summer reading fervor has prompted me to explore STEAM books at the library.  Here are a trio of teen and adult non-fiction titles written for novice-to-intermediate tinkerers interested in technology.  All of these books are informative, helpful, and designed to support project-based creative endeavors.

Make: Getting Started with 3D Printing by Liza Wallach Kloski and Nick Kloski comes from Maker Media, the publisher of Make: magazine and creator of the Maker Faire events showcasing innovations in the maker movement.  The publisher defines the maker movement as a grassroots, “tech influenced DIY community” of “hobbyists, enthusiasts or students” creating, innovating, and “producing value in the community”.  In general, makers are people who engage in hands-on learning through tinkering.  Their creative explorations may lead to innovations or new understanding of the world around them and may involve new technologies or low-tech tools and equipment.  This particular book focuses on 3D printing, the process of building a three-dimensional object by a machine adding layers of material from the object’s bottom to its top.  Getting Started offers a nice introduction to the 3D printing process.  It is less an in-depth history or background of 3D printing than it is an overview with specific tips for project development.  The authors discuss basic “hows” and “whys” of the process then move on to examine different printers and filament.  There are helpful chapters describing the process of choosing an object to print, creating a virtual model of it, and preparing the model for printing.  Additional chapters outline working with specific modeling software—some big names are mentioned, but the offerings are narrowed to a few.  Full-color illustrations throughout are an asset.

For something a bit different, the Raspberry Pi is an accessible entry to computer coding and electronics.  About the size of a library card, the Pi is a fully-functioning computer (albeit with a smaller memory than a laptop) complete with ports for accessories and portable file storage.  Some models have Wi-Fi capability.  Raspberry Pi Electronics Projects for the Evil Genius by Donald Norris presents ideas for activities starting at the intermediate level.  Although there is a brief introduction to the technology, the book is written for those with some background knowledge or experience in computers or electronics.  Project directions and discussion are clear, concise, and direct.  Like the writing style, the black-and-white illustrations are serviceable and relevant.  Snippets of computer code are included where needed.  The author offers two approaches to exploring the Raspberry Pi—discovering a concept or component related to the Pi and implementing a project designed around it (adding a touchscreen and creating a demo of the screen) and building a specific project (create a nighttime monitor for your garden).

My favorite book in this trio is Unscrewed: Salvage and Reuse Motors, Gears, Switches, and More from Your Old Electronics by Ed Sobey.  Tinkering is a key component of the maker movement, and Unscrewed is the road map to tinkering for the uninitiated.  The book’s premise is that inoperative or unwanted gadgets are a treasure trove of hands-on learning.  The author presents basic instructions for dismantling 53 items ranging from a hair dryer to a VCR to an electric toothbrush to a bar code scanner.  Each chapter includes a list of the tools required for the job and a “Treasure Cache” detailing the particularly useful pieces of the gadget.  In “What Now?” the author suggests uses for parts of each device.  Useful safety tips and black-and-white illustrations are used throughout.

Whether you are new to the maker movement or are an expert in the world of STEAM, the library has titles for you.  Join us this summer for loads of fun and a wealth of information!

joanWhen I read the description for THE BOOK OF JOAN, I thought, “oh, interesting, a science fiction retelling of Joan of Arc.” But that’s maybe the most basic a description that could possibly be attributed to Yuknavitch’s book. Not to be trite, but this story is about the nature of humanity and love, and whether those two concepts can ever really coexist.

Humanity has nearly come to an end. Aboard the space station CIEL, the remainders of Earth’s population work to find a way to survive. As they’ve been exposed to radiation from the atmosphere, humans are pale and hairless. Standard interpretations of sex and gender have become irrelevant. They can no longer reproduce. For means of entertainment, they turn to extreme body modification, aka “grafts”.

Grafts come in different types, including elaborate skin grafts that replicate 17th century French powdered wigs. The higher one’s status, the more extreme the graft. Different artists on CIEL create these grafts. Christine is one of these artists and specializes in branding stories into skin. On her body, she has branded the story of Joan.

Joan is a rebel who fights against the leader of CIEL, Jean de Men. Joan’s story, as you can imagine, mirrors the life of Joan of Arc. As a little girl, Joan has a strange encounter where she more or less connects spiritually to a tree. From this encounter, she receives a glowing light on her right temple. This light defies all explanation; no doctor can discover where it originates. But it connects Joan to the Earth and grants her power over nature.

On CIEL, the official story is that Joan was burned at the stake for being an eco-terrorist. (In this future world, even executions are theatrical events.) But Christine discovers that Joan escaped and lives on the wasteland of Earth below. Both Joan and Christine fight against the sadistic Jean de Men, but in different ways. As the stories of Christine and Joan spiral together, the book comes to a dramatic, though not uplifting end.

More than anything, THE BOOK OF JOAN is a piece of feminist science fiction. Yuknavitch deals with bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, and gender expression in what I would describe as lurid detail. I have to admit, this is not a book I’d recommend to everyone. It’s definitely a book for readers who don’t mind a bit of the grotesque. There are scenes that vividly describe torture of various kinds, including human experimentation. Yuknavitch pulls no punches. But if you’re brave enough to give it a chance, THE BOOK OF JOAN will provide you with a lot to think about.

I can’t lie, friends, I’ve been in a reading slump. Yes, that’s right, it even happens to librarians. Sometimes there’s just a lot of pressure to pick the “right” book for a review. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes there’s a lot of knitting to be done and shows in the Netflix queue. So, to make up for my recent lack of reading, I decided to bring you some of my favorite reads from 2016 that didn’t get a review here for whatever reason.

hikeThe Hike by Drew Magary — In the words of a literature professor I know, this book is “weird, wacky stuff.” To make it very simple, a man takes a hike, gets lost, and ends up taking a journey full of mythological references, puzzles, and talking crabs. Well, just one talking crab. The Hike is definitely a weird book, but I also found it laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly compelling. Magary explores not just the wacky, but what it means for a person to choose their destiny.

Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan — A graphic novel series that is (supposedly) going to make a debut as a TV series on FX sometime in the future. Vaughan deals with an interesting scenario: what if every man on Earth died suddenly and all at once? Why did it happen? What will happen to the planet now? And how will the last surviving man, Yorick, manage to survive? Lots of different issues are covered in this series and I would definitely say it’s best suited for adult readers with open minds.

todaysempleToday Will Be Different by Maria Semple — I admit, this wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the year. But as I think back on it, I find I’m more fond of the plot. Eleanor Flood is a woman who is going to change her life. She decides to make everything different, to be the woman she really wants to be. A better mother, a better wife. But then, things start to fall apart. She winds up following her husband in an attempt to discover a secret he’s been keeping from her. But I promise it’s not the secret you think it is.

Lady Killer by Joëlle Jones — A new graphic novel series that I look forward to following. Set in the 1960s, Lady Killer follows the story of Josie Schuller, perfect housewife and deadly assassin. Can she escape her past and have the ideal life? Well, no. This is definitely a graphic novel; the illustrations and plot leave little to the imagination when it comes to violence. But, it’s a different take on the whole assassin character, which makes it a fun read for me.

bestfriendhendrixMy Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix — My very first book review was of Hendrix’s book Horrorstör. If you’re a fan of comedy and horror, I have to recommend his latest endeavor. Teenage girls, cliques, the 80s, and demonic possession all come together to tell a story of the healing power of friendship. The characters are funny and real while dealing with both the everyday concerns of teenagers and the possibility that their best friend may well be possessed by a demon.

So, there we have it. Five reads from 2016 that I think are worth your while. I can assure you that, even though I’ve had a tough start with reading this year, my to-read list has continued to grow. There are definitely other great reads out there; we add them to our shelves every week at the library.

flyingThis anthology of short stories is edited by Ellen Oh, author and President of the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) movement.  Oh has gathered an impressive group of authors who each present a vivid and memorable voice.  Each story allows the reader to immerse herself in a different cultural experience.  A true representation of the melting pot that is the United States of America, readers may see themselves in these stories, or have the opportunity to peek into the lives of individuals who may be vastly different than their own.

 

From Kwame Alexander’s “mostly true” memoir of a young man in an Honor’s English class, to Soman Chainani’s bittersweet tale of a young boy’s journey of enlightenment, to the childhood grief of losing a parent projected so perfectly in Kelly Baptist’s chronicles, this book is full of tales that are sure to captive a wide, and hopefully diverse, audience.  The star-studded list of authors are impressive in their own right and Oh ensures their work continues to be read with the inclusion of an “About the Authors,” appendage.  The quality you’ll find inside these pages is inspiring.

 

However different the scenery in each story, some common themes emerge.  The varied experiences of children leave their mark, no matter in which culture they happen.  At the end of each story, I found myself wanting to know what happens next, always a sign of an excellent reading experience.

The Joplin Public Library has a fairly extensive collection of graphic novels, many of which I’ve reviewed previously in these pages. Still, there exists a bias against graphic novels. Many people view them as childish, lacking in literary merit. If that’s your perspective, I ask you to consider the work of cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

In his ground-breaking works “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History” and “Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began,” Spiegelman explores the Holocaust through the experiences of his father, Vladek, a Polish Jew. Part biography, part memoir, both works tell a compelling story.

“Maus,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 — the first graphic novel to do so – covers the mid-1930s through winter 1944. Vladek’s story begins in Czestochowa, a small Polish town not far from the German border. As a young man, he buys and sells textiles and describes a life of pretty girls who openly pursue him. Eventually, he meets and marries Anja, a clever but high-strung girl from a wealthy family. Anja suffers a breakdown after giving birth to their first son, Richieu, and the couple go to a sanitarium in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia so that Anja can seek rest and treatment.

After they return, political tensions rise, and there are anti-Semitic riots. Eventually, Vladek is drafted into the Polish army; he is captured by the Germans and becomes a prisoner of war. After his release, he reunites with his family.  But their happiness is short-lived, as the Nazi noose tightens around Europe. The Jews in Vladek and Anja’s town are moved from ghetto to ghetto amid worsening conditions. Families are split up. More and more people are sent to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The couple arrange to escape to Hungary, but the smugglers betray them to the Gestapo, who arrest them and send them to Auschwitz.

“Maus II” picks up where its predecessor leaves off. Separated in Auschwitz, Vladek and Anja lead lives of starvation and abuse. But Vladek finds ways to avoid the “selections,” the process by which prisoners were chose for more labor or even execution, and hustles his way into working as a tinsmith and cobbler. He and Anja manage to exchange occasional messages, which keeps them both going. As the war progresses, Vladek and other prisoners are marched from Auschwitz in occupied Poland to Dachau in Germany. When the war finally ends, the camp survivors are freed. After a time, Vladek and Anja are reunited.

Woven throughout Vladek’s story is the tale of father and son, who share a troubled, tense relationship. “Maus” and “Maus II” are as much about being a Holocaust survivor as they are about being the child of Holocaust survivors. Art is eager to hear his father’s experiences so that he can write about them, but he has little patience for the older man’s anxious, miserly ways. Much of “Maus II” is devoted to their relationship as Vladek’s second marriage falls apart and his health deteriorates badly.

Spiegelman employs an animal motif to tell his story. In keeping with Nazi propaganda, Jews are represented as vermin, as mice. Likewise, Germans are characterized as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs. This technique adds a surreal quality to horrific historical events, particularly when characters masquerade as others, such as when Vladek and others wear pig masks over their mouse faces to hide their Jewish identities.

 

 

If you have any qualms about “reading” an illustrated work, be assured that the story is text-driven. The artwork is black and white, and there is a fair amount of detail in the frames.

If you don’t mind the heavy subject matter during this holiday season, I highly recommend that you pick up “Maus” and “Maus II.” They offer a unique, accessible interpretation of a horrific time in history. You can find them in the Teen Department of the Joplin Public Library.