Librarian's Pick

Here's what our librarians are reading lately.

Librarian’s Pick: Crusaders – Dan Jones

Crusaders by Dan Jones“For more than 1,000 years, Christians and Muslims lived side by side, sometimes at peace and sometimes at war. When Christian armies seized Jerusalem in 1099, they began the most notorious period of conflict between the two religions. Depending on who you ask, the fall of the holy city was either an inspiring legend or the greatest of horrors. In Crusaders, Dan Jones interrogates the many sides of the larger story, charting a deeply human and avowedly pluralist path through the crusading era.

Expanding the usual timeframe, Jones looks to the roots of Christian-Muslim relations in the eighth century and tracks the influence of crusading to present day. He widens the geographical focus to far-flung regions home to so-called enemies of the Church, including Spain, North Africa, southern France, and the Baltic states. By telling intimate stories of individual journeys, Jones illuminates these centuries of war not only from the perspective of popes and kings, but from Arab-Sicilian poets, Byzantine princesses, Sunni scholars, Shi’ite viziers, Mamluk slave soldiers, Mongol chieftains, and barefoot friars.

Crusading remains a rallying call to this day, but its role in the popular imagination ignores the cooperation and complicated coexistence that were just as much a feature of the period as warfare. The age-old relationships between faith, conquest, wealth, power, and trade meant that crusading was not only about fighting for the glory of God, but also, among other earthly reasons, about gold. In this richly dramatic narrative that gives voice to sources usually pushed to the margins, Dan Jones has written an authoritative survey of the holy wars with global scope and human focus.”

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Librarian’s Pick: The Giver of Stars

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes“When Eleanor Roosevelt creates a mobile library system as part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, Alice volunteers to become one of the librarians on horseback to escape her father-in-law’s house. As a librarian, Alice joins four others: unconventional Margery, who lives by her own rules; boisterous Beth, who has eight brothers; Izzy, the library organizer’s pampered daughter, who wears a leg brace and has a beautiful voice; and Sophia, a black woman who risks backlash to work for the mobile library, in violation of the state’s segregation laws.

Together, these women and their horses face hardship and danger to bring books and information to the poverty-stricken backwoods of Kentucky. In return, they find companionship and fulfillment. The library’s future is threatened, however, when Margery and Alice step too far outside the accepted norms of society, angering the powerful patriarchy of the town.”

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Librarian’s Pick: How We Fight For Our Lives – Saeed Jones

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones“Through flowing metaphors and dialogue, rich language and deeply personal family stories, we learn about Jones’ struggle for his identity—why he built a suit of invisible armor to protect himself when no one else would. Jones writes, “If America was going to hate me for being black and gay, then I might as well make a weapon out of myself.” Almost every passage feels like a fresh, raw wound, ready to leave a scar.

Each vignette represents a different stage in Jones’ blossoming life, and together they create a kaleidoscope of the difficulties that can stem from hiding oneself from the world. We travel with him as the child of a single mother in Lewisville, Texas, to his strained teenage relationship with his religious grandmother in Memphis, Tennessee, to destructive sexual experiences with friends, lovers and strangers, to his life in college and beyond, where he has yet to accept himself as a full person, rather than as a performer who needs to be interesting enough to entertain a crowd. Jones recognizes his desire to wear a mask early on, but it’s difficult to remove the mask once he has the chance.”

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Librarian’s Pick: Andrew Carnegie Shortlist Finalists 2020

Carnegie 2020 Finalists

Feast Your Eyes – Myla Goldberg  Click here for availability 

“In this mesmerizing, brilliantly structured, and deeply insightful novel about a radical photographer and single mother and how her controversial images affect her daughter, Myla Goldberg brings into provocative focus the need to make art, the obstacles confronting women artists, and the transcendence of love.”

Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli  Click here for availability 

“Intense and timely, Valeria Luiselli’s novel tracks husband-and-wife audio documentarians as they travel cross-country with their two children and deep into the painful history of the Apache people and the present immigration crisis on the Southwest border,  while freshly exploring themes of conquest and remembrance, and powerfully conveying the beauty of the haunted landscape.”

The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehisi Coates  Click here for availability 

“Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel is a profoundly imagined and psychologically and socially perceptive drama about the atrocities of slavery sieved through the experiences and convictions of young Hiram Walker, who, as the son of an enslaved woman and the owner of a prominent Virginia estate, possesses a strange and liberating power.”

Figuring – Maria Popova  Click here for availability 

“Maria Popova brings her zest for facts and passion for biography to this exhilarating and omnivorous inquiry into the lives of geniuses who “bridged the scientific and poetic,” spinning a fine web connecting such barrier-breakers as Margaret Fuller, Ada Lovelace, Frederick Douglass, and Rachel Carson.”

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee – David Treuer  Click here for availability 

“David Treuer presents a richly dimensional “counternarrative” to the long-standing depiction of defeated, hopeless Native Americans, documenting, instead, the many ways each assault against Indigenous lives and cultures gave rise to a strong Native resolve not only to survive, but to emerge revitalized.”

Midnight in Chernobyl – Adam Higginbotham  Click here for availability 

“Adam Higginbotham has created a thoroughly researched, fast-paced, engrossing, and revelatory account of what led up to and what followed the explosion of Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear-power plant on April 26, 1986, focusing on the people involved as they faced shocking circumstances that are having complex and significant global consequences.”



Librarian’s Pick: Grand Union – Zadie Smith

Grand Union by Zadie Smith“Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando are driving out of Manhattan after a terrorist attack. What sounds like the opening of an urban myth is actually the zany plotline of “Escape from New York,” one of 19 tales in Zadie Smith’s first collection of short stories, Grand Union. These masterful tales impress, engage and occasionally infuriate as Smith brings her dazzling wit and acute sensitivity to bear. These stories are ready to grapple with the complex times we live in.

If anything serves this collection best, it’s the humor that runs through the stories like a lazy river. All genres are Smith’s to play with, from fables to science fiction to a realistic conversation between two friends. Even the few weaker efforts still brim with ideas and intelligence. No subjects are off-limits, from an older trans woman shopping for shapewear in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets” to a young mother remembering her sexual escapades in college in “Sentimental Education.” Smith uses the third-person plural to fine effect in one of the collection’s best, the parable “Two Men Arrive in a Village,” which explores global politics without ever mentioning a politician or country by name.

Smith has explored the complexities of families and friendships in an urban setting over the course of five award-winning novels. Those themes are reflected in the delightful “Words and Music,” in which the surviving sister of an elderly pair of siblings sits in a Harlem apartment, reminiscing about the music that shaped her life, and in “For the King,” in which two old friends catch up over a decadent Parisian meal. Grand Union is bookended by two stories of mothers and daughters—one a vignette, the other a ghost story, both with a depth that far outweighs their brevity, something that can be truthfully said for each of these stories.”

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Librarian’s pick: Toil & Trouble – Augusten Burroughs

Toil & Trouble by Augusten Burroughs“Here’s a partial list of things I don’t believe in: God. The Devil. Heaven. Hell. Bigfoot. Ancient Aliens. Past lives. Life after death. Vampires. Zombies. Reiki. Homeopathy. Rolfing. Reflexology. Note that ‘witches’ and ‘witchcraft’ are absent from this list. The thing is, I wouldn’t believe in them, and I would privately ridicule any idiot who did, except for one thing: I am a witch.”

For as long as Augusten Burroughs could remember, he knew things he shouldn’t have known. He manifested things that shouldn’t have come to pass. And he told exactly no one about this, save one person: his mother. His mother reassured him that it was all perfectly normal, that he was descended from a long line of witches, going back to the days of the early American colonies. And that this family tree was filled with witches. It was a bond that he and his mother shared–until the day she left him in the care of her psychiatrist to be raised in his family (but that’s a whole other story). After that, Augusten was on his own. On his own to navigate the world of this tricky power; on his own to either use or misuse this gift.

From the hilarious to the terrifying, Toil & Trouble is a chronicle of one man’s journey to understand himself, to reconcile the powers he can wield with things with which he is helpless. There are very few things that are coincidences, as you will learn in Toil & Trouble. Ghosts are real, trees can want to kill you, beavers are the spawn of Satan, houses are alive, and in the end, love is the most powerful magic of all.”

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Librarian’s Pick: The World That We Knew – Alice Hoffman

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

“Hoffman’s story begins in 1941 in Berlin, where a young Jewish mother, Hanni, knows that she must find a way to smuggle her daughter, Lea, out of the city before the Nazis take notice of her. To do this, she turns to a rabbi for mystical help, only to discover that his daughter, Ettie, is more willing to help Lea through magical means. Ettie, working from knowledge she’s gained through observing her father, crafts a golem they call Ava to guide and protect Lea. Thus begins an unlikely and harrowing journey through France, where Ettie finds a new purpose, Lea finds her soul mate and Ava finds that she’s much more than a single-minded creation.

In beautifully precise prose, Hoffman chronicles the experiences of these characters and those whose lives they touch along the way. Throughout the next three years of the war, each woman tries to survive while also pursuing her own process of self-discovery. Though Nazi-occupied France is an endlessly compelling place to many readers, Hoffman never takes her historical setting for granted. Rather than leaving us to lean on what we think we know, she weaves a fully realized vision of the hidden parts of history, chronicling the stories of people who slipped through the cracks on their way to freedom and the emotional toll that freedom took.”

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Librarian’s Pick: Unfollow – Megan Phelps-Roper

Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper“There are two ways to write about a dam bursting. You can begin at the exact moment the cresting waters rupture the wall and surge toward freedom—or you can start long before that, with the first drops of rain that eventually overrun the embankments. In Unfollow, Megan Phelps-Roper chooses the second approach to explain why she left the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.

One of the most surprising aspects of this remarkable book is how loving the Westboro Baptist Church was—at least to its members in good standing. Phelps-Roper’s childhood was idyllic in many ways. She was surrounded by caring, intelligent and passionate adults who adored her. By the age of 8, however, she was joining them in protesting against the LGBTQ community and being rewarded for spewing vile slogans. This strange juxtaposition defined her youth: Phelps-Roper went to school, shopped at the mall, ate popcorn at the movies—and then rushed out to picket the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq or to publicly pray for more children to be shot after Newtown. By the time she was in her 20s, Phelps-Roper was in charge of the church’s social media presence, using her formidable intellect to defend the reprehensible. And yet, throughout her book is an awareness that each incident contributed to the erosion of her faith in Westboro’s theology.

It’s ironic that the very qualities her family instilled in her—intellectual rigor, intimate knowledge of the Bible, courage in the face of fierce opposition—led to her inevitable departure. When she could no longer support either the church’s theology of hatred or its belief in its own infallibility, she renounced them.

Phelps-Roper is a masterful writer. She writes movingly about the searing pain of separation from those she continues to love, and beautifully about how freeing herself from a theology of hate has given her life greater meaning and purpose. In a time of growing intolerance, Unfollow is essential reading.”

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Librarian’s Pick: Heaven, My Home – Attica Locke

“Attica Locke’s atmospheric thriller Heaven, My Home takes place in the northeastern Texas town of Jefferson, a once-prosperous trading center fallen on hard times (“the city square was like a courtesan who’d found Jesus”). Texas Ranger Darren Matthews investigates the disappearance of a 9-year-old boy who didn’t return from a solo boating adventure on nearby Caddo Lake. The missing boy is the son of Aryan Brotherhood leader Bill King, a convicted and incarcerated murderer. Jefferson was one of the first settlements composed primarily of freed slaves, in addition to a band of Native Americans who successfully dodged the wholesale relocation of tribes to Oklahoma during the U.S. westward expansion. The town is now home to their descendants. Add those aforementioned white supremacists into the mix, and the town becomes a veritable powder keg awaiting a spark—such as a black land­owner whose animosity toward his bigoted tenants is well documented, and who is the last person to have seen the missing boy. Few suspense novelists display a better grip of political and racial divides than Attica Locke, and she spins a hell of a good story as well, introducing characters and locales you will want to visit again and again.”

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Librarian’s Pick: Poisoner In Chief – Stephen Kinzer

Poisoner in Chief by Stephen Kinzer“Throughout the 1950s, under Gottlieb’s imaginative leadership, MK-ULTRA experimented with LSD and other dangerous drugs on unwitting or coerced subjects—mental patients, prisoners and just plain old everyday folks. Many were left mentally disabled for life; some were even killed. One fellow CIA scientist was likely thrown out of a window when he was deemed unreliable. And it was all done in a completely fruitless search for the ability to “brainwash” human minds. Nothing worked—ever.

In this masterful book, Kinzer demonstrates that the “research” done by Gottlieb’s team was as horrifically unethical as anything done by Nazi doctors later tried for war crimes. And yet, as Kinzer carefully documents, Gottlieb was a “nice guy” who loved his family and lived a proto-hippie lifestyle in rural Virginia. He spent his post-CIA years quietly, as a speech therapist who treated children—when he wasn’t destroying documents or stonewalling congressional committees.

During the years of investigations and lawsuits that began in the 1970s, Gottlieb never publicly repented; indeed, he believed himself to be a true patriot who had fought a justified war against communism. Kinzer’s chilling book reveals what can happen when morality is jettisoned in the name of national security—then and now.”

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