Jim reads so prolifically that it started slowing down his staff picks page. You can find his archived staff reviews here!
Jim's December 2018 pick, 1 of 2
The last time I was gut-punched this thoroughly by a book, I was reading J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. There was so much heat in those pages, I almost had to wear gloves. With Friday Black, I think my fingerprints burned off completely. Adjei-Brenyah's collection of stories brims with anger and frustration aimed at a society refusing to admit its own destructive attitudes toward race and immune to their consequences. The stories range from heartbreaking to horrific. At the end of each, I wondered what nightmarish landscape was he taking me to next. I was not disappointed. Neither will you. Grab it now.
Jim's December 2018 pick, 2 of 2
I was all set to not like this book once I started it. I was expecting something along the lines of Carey's The Girl With All the Gifts and the sequel, The Boy on the Bridge. This was soooo different. Dual personalities inhabiting one body? Not split personalities like Sybil, but two distinct people living in one person. Liz, trying to survive her abusive husband, Marc, and Beth, simply trying to survive total obliteration from existence after having been killed by her abusive husband, also named Marc. The two women can't live as one, so who wins? Complicating this, as if it could get more complex, is Fran, a teenage girl who has the ability to sense both Liz and Beth. It comes across as a bit ridiculous, but, as I read on, I found myself completely engrossed in the serpentine plot. Carey had me on the edge of my seat, so that all the twists and turns were like tiny treasures to be savored. By the time I got to the end. I was pleasantly exhausted. Whew!
Jim's November 2018 pick, 1 of 2
At first, I took this book as an exercise in preaching to the choir. A book about getting non-readers to read? The irony was too much. It would have made more sense to present the information as part of a video game. After having read it, Reader, Come Home is for anyone who cares about the future: teachers, parents, politicians, or any type of policymaker.
The basic premise here is that reading predominantly from screens has deleterious effects on a person's brain, and, by extension, affects thoughts and actions. Since technology today evolves exponentially seemingly every second and just about everything is digital, it is hard not to read from one type of computer or another. It is the way of the world. I am even writing this on a computer and you may be reading it on one. It's inescapable and we are apparently doomed.
Or are we? Although Wolfe clearly points out the dangers of us quickly becoming a nation of shallow idiots and the likelihood that that will happen, she also leaves a path open to allow for a course correction before it's too late. The big question is whether we shall see it and take action in time. Startling and disturbing.
Jim's November 2018 pick, 2 of 2
In these times of political extremes. with just about everyone choosing sides, red or blue, Dan Barry has done a remarkable thing; he captured snapshots of America that show our shared humanity.
This collection of stories about Americans at their worst and best is culled from Barry's New York Times column of the same name.
What came to mind repeatedly as I read is that, above all, no matter how shiny or rusty our lives may be, here in the land of the free and the home of quiet desperation, we persevere.
If you want to see what America is like, the people, not so much the scenery, pick up This Land and dive in. Without a doubt, you will find a piece of yourself among its pages.
Jim's October 2018 review, 1 of 4
When simmered on the stove, thick and leathery collard greens can take upwards of an hour to turn silky and lush, The pressure cooker...Wait, that's from a recipe for dinner. Sorry about that.
If I have to tell you why you should read this book, walk away now and never look back. If, however, you know fully why this is an indispensable addition to your personal library, well, say no more-say no more. Know what I mean, eh? Know what I mean? Nudge-nudge. Wink-wink. Say! No! More!
Jim's October 2018 pick, 2 of 4
This is story of numbers: the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis, the registration numbers tattooed on the arms of those victims, two hearts that meet in Auschwitz to care for each other in the darkest of places, and one man who vowed to live despite the odds against him. Lale Sokolov by sheer happenstance becomes the tattooist of Auschwitz and uses his position to help as many as he can to survive the unspeakable. And when he least expects it, Lale meets Gita, a fellow victim who becomes the love of his life, and promises that she, too, will walk out alive.
As explained in the "Author's Note," Morris based this novel on the life story of the actual Lale. Rather than a straight up biography, Morris chose to fictionalize Lale's tale and, in so doing, drew me in more emotionally than if Lale were to tell his own story. There is something that occurs in fiction that touches the heart more than biography can, that makes the evils of the time even more horrific. I was heartbroken at what happened to Lale and Gita rather than simply disgusted. Considering the setting, I expected disaster with every page turn and yet was pleasantly surprised many times.
There are many books based on the events of WW2, yet this feels fresh as if it were recently discovered in someone's attic. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a testament to the human capacity to love even in a place where it seems that love had been reduced to ashes long ago.
Jim's October 2018 pick, 3 of 4
I was immediately drawn to this book because of my anglophilic tendencies. I thought that I would learn a little bit about the Tower of London and the ravens that keep the country sound. I did find out some about the Tower, a lot about the ravens, but a fair amount about the author.
Skaife is natural storyteller and drew me in right from the start. From his days in the military, starting at age sixteen, no less, to his current stint as the Yeoman Warder and Ravenmaster at the Tower. he'll keep you enthralled. The raven lore is fascinating but Skaife's yarn-weaving makes it all the more enjoyable.
This is a fun book to read for a bit of escape from the sturm und drang of politics.
Jim's October 2018 pick, 4 of 4
It's not often that I come upon a teen mystery, but this most surely is, and a doozy at that.
Claudia Coleman returns from summer camp and cannot find her best friend, Monday Charles. She is given differing stories, Monday's living with her aunt, no, she's with her dad, no, she's home but doesn't want to see you. For Claudia, none of it rings true. It's up to her to find out what's really going on.
Jackson does a masterful job of capturing the love of friendship and the self-doubt of adolescence. At the climax, she delivers a gut punch that will leave you reeling.
Highly recommended for teens and adults.
Jim's September 2018 pick, 1 of 2
I have long understood that it is hard living in America, unless you are one of the lucky "one percent." Imagine how difficult it is for a refugee who does not know how to speak English or navigate the complexities of the social jungle that exists in American society. Helen Thorpe in The Newcomers tries to show the reader just that. Her focus is a "new Americans" classroom in South High School in Denver, Colorado but extends to the families of the students of the class. By going beyond the school to show the home lives of the students, Thorpe reveals the hurdles that the adult refugees have to overcome, too.
This book reveals to the reader how easy most Americans have it and how hard and unfair it is for people who have come to our shores to seek safety and prosperity. Putting aside the monumental tasks of managing a household and getting a job, we accept that kids may have difficulty learning the language but expect adults to speak English from the moment they step foot in America. I wonder if we would succeed if we were their shoes? An eye-opener.
Jim's September 2018 pick, 2 of 2
And it happens as simply as that - someone trips over you as you are trying to retrieve your phone from your gym bag, and the next you know, you are being handcuffed and slammed to the ground by a cop who thinks that you're up to no good.
And just like that, you round a corner to find your best friend's brother beating a black kid, hands cuffed behind his back, who doesn't seem to be resisting arrest yet is punched and kicked nevertheless.
This is the story of two boys, one black and one white, who must decide whether or not to stand up for what is right. all american boys superbly captures the tensions of our times when police brutality against unarmed black men seems to be an everyday occurrence. A captivating novel that could easily be memoir.
Jim's August 2018 pick, 1 of 2
Tom Bouchard has a lot on his plate: tons of college apps to complete, a clingy girlfriend to keep happy, and an influx of refugee students to make sense of. Complicating it all is the fact that a few of those refugee kids have turned his soccer team into real contenders, but how can he make it work if he can't even talk to them?
Padian has done a terrific job of incorporating the many aspects of a teenager's life into an engaging narrative. She has created a sympathetic main character while simultaneously revealing the complexities of refugee life here in America.
In Out of Nowhere, Padian gives the reader a clear depiction of a town dealing with refugee resettlement and all the complications that that entails. Despite the current political climate, this issue is one that we shall have to manage forever. Padian's book is a good way to understand things that might not easily be seen. Pick it up today.
Jim's August 2018 pick, 2 of 2
This is the story of a people, their history and lifestyle, and the place they call home. The place is Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, and the people are the islanders who spend just about every day on the water crabbing or oystering year round. It's a harsh life, one that has been passed down for generations and is endangered by the effects of climate change and youth migration to the mainland.
Swift spent a year on Tangier Island getting to know the islanders, and his use of the term "requiem" in the title is very appropriate; as he writes about them, he does so as if they are already gone, which, in a way, they are.
Chesapeake Requiem is an affectionate look at a way of life unimaginable to the people who enjoy its fruits and a cautionary tale about the dangers of ignoring what's staring you in the face. Swift tries not to judge the citizens of Tangier Island, but it is very clear that he feels their days are numbered. Illuminating and precautionary.
Jim's July 2018 pick, 1 of 2
A few years ago, there was a big ruckus down in New Orleans about the dismantling of four statues that celebrated the Confederacy. For the mayor of the city, Mitch Landrieu, it was a bold move, one that elicited both praise and death threats. This book is his attempt to explain why the statues had to come down.
In the Shadow of Statues is actually about a lot more. Landrieu tells his life story, of his childhood as the son of a politician and of his own rise in Louisiana politics. He recounts, rather startlingly, David Dukes' various political campaigns and parallels the Neo-Nazi's tactics with those of Donald Trump - absolutely scary how similar the two men are.
In the Shadow of Statues is clear example of how we are a product of our upbringing. Mr. Landrieu is a born storyteller, and I was quickly drawn in to his tale. Repeatedly, as I read, I couldn't help but think that this man needs a much grander stage than just New Orleans, the White House, say. My fingers are crossed.
Jim's July 2018 pick, 2 of 2
I was looking for a book in the style of Nevada Barr and found it in Bearskin. Barr's Anna Pigeon has met her match in Ric Morten, the caretaker of a forest preserve in the backwoods of Virginia. There is more to this man than just an interest to be out in the fresh air and pine trees. Morten has his hands full with a mystery to solve and a past to hide. Skinned bear carcasses, redneck biker gangs, and a shady Mexican come together to keep the action tight and fast paced. McLaughlin writes vividly of the flora and fauna of this corner of Appalachia and of the toughness of the people who live there. Fascinating to read about but not something I wish to experience firsthand.
I did not want this book to end. You won't either.
Jim's June 2018 pick, 1 of 3
Here is a book for the myriad fans of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird who had ever wondered how she had written her classic novel. Crespino presents a history of the development of the character of Atticus by offering a biography of Harper Lee's father. The father-daughter relationship of the Finches is shown to mirror, for the most part, that of the Lee family, as the author draws parallels between real life and fiction. We also find out about Nell's career as a writer, first trying unsuccessfully to publish Go Set a Watchman and then the subsequent publication of her masterpiece. By far, my favorite part is "Atticus in the World," a look at how the book and characters have influenced everything from Hollywood to world leaders. Atticus Finch is an interesting peek at how life and craft intersect.
Jim's June 2018 pic, 2 of 3
This book cannot be more timely, as we each struggle with our country's current immigration laws and policies. Cantu becomes a border guard and finds almost immediately that the job is more difficult than he expected. There is the physical harshness of the land but more overwhelming is the emotional toll of having to arrest people risking death to improve their lives any way they can. Cantu refers to his work as "the thing that crushes," and it's clear, that for him, his soul is what lies broken on the desert floor. A vital book for our times.
Jim's June 2018 pick, 3 of 3
This is the twentieth anniversary edition of a book that Woodson admits is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. Instead of coming from bickering families, the couple at the center of the story are from different races, living in a time when interracial dating was not as accepted as it is today.Ellie and Miah meet accidentally and cannot stop thinking about each other. Their relationship unfolds tenderly and I felt connected to them, so that, when the inevitable came at the end, I was unexpectedly struck. I knew what was coming yet was devastated anyway - a sign of a good writer.This is a quick read but an emotional one. Keep the tissues handy.
Jim's April 2018 pick
Acevedo brilliantly captures the heart and mind of Xiomara Batista, a teenage girl longing to find her voice. She has a lot to say as she juggles the demands of school and her controlling mother, a perfect twin brother, and her developing body and interest in the opposite sex. Try as she might, Xiomara cannot quite find the right words until she joins the poetry club at school.
The Poet X is a touching story of growing up and becoming your own person. Don't be put off by the format. It reads like normal prose regardless of how it looks. A wonderful book. Highly recommended.
Jim's March 2018 picks, 1 of 2
Initially, I though that this book was going to be another Freedom Writers, wherein a young, optimistic teacher instructs a group of toughened students not to give up on life as they learn of the redeeming power of writing. There is a little bit of that here, but for the most part Reading with Patrick focuses on the redemption of two souls, those of the author, who struggles with pleasing her parents while also appeasing her conscience, and Patrick Browning. a pleasant but unmotivated student who lands in jail while attempting to protect his sister.
Kuo keeps her narrative humming along, digressing here and there to address topics like the northern migration of African Americans and the racially lopsidedness of the penal system, but overall, as she deals with deciding on which future she wants for herself, practicing law or teaching, and helping Patrick come to terms with his own life choices, the author reveals just how little many people know about the lives of those living in the margins of society. The best part, though, is her insistence in the power of a good book to anchor a person in a world that seems completely out of control.
Jim's March 2018 pick, 2 of 2
I want to give this book to anyone who cries, "All lives matter," when they hear someone say that black lives matter. The author is one of the creators of the movement, and in telling her story, she clearly demonstrates the need for more awareness and the nurturing of our black communities. There is personal narrative mixed with historical perspective and social commentary. This book made me angry at the actions of some factions of our society and cry at the damage those actions inflict. Cullors shows the reader that we are a nation at war with itself. People often speculate about the possibility of a second civil war; Cullors's book is a good argument that the fighting has already begun. A vital text for our times.
Jim's December 2017 pick, 1 of 5
Charles Dickens is my favorite dead author and his A Christmas Carol is my favorite book. Naturally, anything to do with either the man or his work draws my attention.
Silva does here what the film Finding Neverland did for J. M. Barrie, connect various events from the author's life to different aspects of the work that we know so well.
I was a little worried that the premise of the book would be too contrived, but Silva does a nice job of making the plot plausible and realistic. She also writes in the style of Dickens, which brings a danger in itself; however, Silva deftly handles the task.
Whether or not you are a fan of Dickens, you will find this tale engaging and an enjoyable holiday treat.
Jim's December 2017 pick, 2 of 5
Refugee, by Alan Gratz
Refugee tells the stories of three different young people, each fleeing a desperate situation, looking for peace and safety. Josef flees the menace of 1930s Nazi Germany, Isabel leaves Cuba in 1994 for the freedom of the United States, and Mahmoud escapes Syria in 2015 before the bombs take away everything he holds dear.
Gratz reveals the trials and tribulations that each of these characters experience. Although they are fictional, the uncertain terrors that each faces are very real and provide insight into the refugee experience in a way that is much more personal than one would find in a newspaper.
Gratz will have you looking at the world differently after you reach the stunning conclusion. It took my totally by surprise and left me breathless.
Jim's December 2017 pick, 3 of 5
Holy gym socks, Batman! If you are a fan of comics, you know that they are not just for kids. From Tucker's account of the Marvel-DC rivalry, you will find out that behind closed doors, comics are an outright battlefield. The constant tit-for-tat gamesmanship between these two comics giants has involved multiple media, including television, movies, and, of course, comics. Then there is the peripheral merchandise, the action figures, mugs, posters, etc. It goes on and on.
Tucker writes of these anything-but-comic antics in a clear, brisk style, leading the reader from the origins of Superman, through the creation of Marvel to the ensuing war for the number one spot in the hearts and minds of fanboys around the world. There are a few tines when the author seems to repeat himself, but it isn't due to weak writing but rather the juvenile behavior of Marvel and DC company employees. They really did act like ten-year-olds on a school playground. "Take that, DC!" "Oh, yeah? You take that, Marvel!" It's pathetic that grown men act that way, but it is as enjoyable as a Superman-Spiderman match-up.
This is a fun read and a great way to get a behind-the-scenes look at the comics world.
Jim's December 2017 pick, 4 out of 5
Hiddensee, by Gregory Maguire
Hidden kingdoms, talking mice, and, of course, nutcrackers. In his latest fantasy-fiction expansion of a well-known tale, Maguire brings us the story of Dirk Drosselmeier, the grandfather in The Nutcracker. The author tells us of Drosselmeier's mysterious youth and how he came to be associated with that wooden shell buster. We even find out how Drosselmeier lost an eye to receive his roguish eye patch.
In addition to a good story, practically an adult fairy tale, what I enjoyed the most about Hiddensee was the inclusion of historical figures, such as Franz Mesmer and Charles Dickens. It kept me turning the pages to see who was going to pop up next.
Although Hiddensee is related to the perennial holiday favorite, this is not a book for all ages, as Maguire throws in occasional scenes of sex.
Other than that, Hiddensee is a good read for a cold winter night.
Jim's December 2017 pick, 5 of 5
I read somewhere that a refugee longs to return to his or her home country. That they are happy to be in a safe place for the time being but, under the right conditions, would jump at the chance to go home. This is true for seven-year-old Bana Alabed, who must flee Syria with her family when her country goes to war with itself. She tells the world her story here in Dear World.
Alabed became a social media star when she began tweeting about her experiences of living a place that literally was being torn to pieces around her. In her book, Alabed describes, sometimes in horrific detail, the terror of living in a war zone. Despite the danger that surrounds her, she faces each day with surprising optimism, much like a Syrian Anne Frank. Alabed writes eloquently about what she wants, which is what we all want: to feel safe. The fact that she was only seven when she wrote this book is astounding. I can only hope that people heed her call for peace so that she, and all refugees, can return to that feeling of safety and home.
Jim's November 2017 pick, 1 of 3
Sons and Soldiers, by Bruce Henderson
I have mentioned in previous reviews that World War 2 is so deep and complex that people will write about it for centuries. Bruce Henderson proves that in his book Sons and Soldiers. Here, he uncovers the tales of six young Jewish men who escaped Nazi Germany only to return to fight for the Allies.
Henderson does an excellent job of capturing, with tension and an evolving self-awareness, the early lives of these six future Ritchie Boys, building up to their exodus from Europe, leaving family and friends behind for an unknown future. Once the war begins, these men realize that, as much as they dread the possibilities of what could happen to them, they must return to fight against their former tormentors. The last part of the book, wherein the men are sent to liberate concentration camps, contains scenes of heartbreak and horror.
Sons and Soldiers is solid storytelling.
Jim's November 2017 pick, 2 of 3
If you want to know what it's like to live in space, you have to read this book, which documents Kelly's year long experiences on the International Space Station. He covers a lot more than just his time on the ISS, such as his years growing up and how he became an astronaut. Surprising to me was his absolute dislike for school and reading, and how it took just the right book, The Right Stuff, to open a connection to the wider world.
Kelly can be a bit pedantic at times, ticking off details as if from a list, but I think that is because of his training. Everything has to done just so or the results can be devastating. This is made clear when he goes on a spacewalk. One small mistake and he is lost forever. The attention to detail is understandable.
If you have a space junkie in your family, Endurance is a must read.
Jim's November pick, 3 of 3
I have only read one other John Green book - The Fault in Our Stars - which was meh. I think that it was a victim of its own hype. Turtles All the Way Down carries with it high expectations, too, since it is Green's first book after the worldwide success of tFioS. Thankfully, this book rises to the occasion.
In some ways Turtles reminds me of Jack Gantos's Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, which showed the reader what it's like to be someone with ADD. Green expertly lets us into the mind of Aza Holmes. a sixteen-year-old teen with OCD. Green, who also suffers from OCD, used his own history to fill out Aza'a story. If he goes through half of what his heroine does, his life must be torture.
Besides Aza's personal struggles and the affect they have on her friendships and a burgeoning relationship with a neighborhood boy, Turtles also has a mystery that Aza and her gal pal Daisy try to solve. The sleuthing is, at best, a distraction. Green's story is strongest when he explores Aza's OCD demons, which are truly hellish.
Strap yourself in for one bumpy yet satisfying ride.
Jim's July 2017 pick, 1 of 3
I have always been fascinated by grocery stores. As a kid, I loved to go shopping with my mom (such spectacle in every aisle), and even now, I am the person who buys most of the groceries in my household (a trip down memory lane each time). Lately, I have looked upon grocery stores as a bit grotesque: all those items, so much choice. Do we really need half an aisle devoted to breakfast cereal? In Grocery, Ruhlman delves into why there is so much excess and how it got that way. To put it bluntly, we are all to blame.
Ruhlman's style is conversational. I felt like I was sitting down having a cuppa with a good friend as he spun this incredible yarn about how we are killing ourselves with the stuff that we put in our mouths. Sounds foreboding, right? Well, the author makes it seem so matter of fact that he does not come across as scolding but rather encouraging: he lays out information for the reader to absorb and put to use during the next visit to the supermarket. Caveat emptor is one way to sum up his advice, suggesting that a shopper should know what is being bought and the effects each item has on the body.
Throughout the book are interesting stories of such familiar names such as Kullen, Birdseye, Hellman, Kroger, and Kellogg and how each played a part in creating the modern supermarket, these palaces of plenty right in our neighborhoods. It's quite a history lesson. Yet, Ruhlman warns that within such cornucopias lurk food deserts hidden in plain sight. But, how can that be, you may ask? To learn the details, you are going to have to read this book. Cover to cover, it is valuable food for thought. Bon appetit!
Jim's July 2017 pick, 2 of 3
The summer is still in full swing, so there is still time to get lost in a good book.
Carl Hiaasen’s series for young readers is a great place to start. Each book is set in Florida and centers on an ecological theme: Hoot – the unnecessary destruction of habitat, Flush – the wanton pollution of coastal waters, Scat the hunting of endangered species, and Chomp, the abuse of nature in the name of entertainment.
The latter focuses on Wahoo, the son of an animal wrangler hired to help a reality TV star, Derek Badger, film his Everglades adventure episode. It quickly comes to light that very little is real about Mr. Beaver – oops, I mean Badger. Much mayhem follows.
If you like animals, nature, and adventure, pick up this series and dive into the world of Carl Hiaasen.
Jim's July 2017 pick, 3 of 3
I have found that the funniest people in the world are also very serious when not onstage. This is true for Amy Schumer.
No one can deny that her stand-up is hilariously funny; however, that humor is born of some pretty dark stuff. Throughout the book, Schumer covers such topics as sex, her Long Island upbringing, sex, the influence of parents, sex, weight loss, sex, gun violence, sex, and body image. There is also a lot about sex, some of which can be a bit raw at times, no pun intended. Or perhaps it was intended. Needless to say this is not a book to leave out for kids to read. Especially the part about the hockey player and his “stick.”
Schumer’s style is conversational and stream-of-conscious, and like her comedy routines, she has no trouble telling the reader what she really thinks. No punches are held.
The big take away in the book is empowerment. Schumer frequently brings up that women need to stand up for themselves because if they don’t, no one else will. Some might find that grating, but probably those who do would never read this book in the first place. More power to you, Schumer!
Jim's June 2017 pick, 1 of 5
This book is meant for the new writer, which McCann admits could be anyone aged seven to seventy. I approached it with an eye toward gleaning nuggets of wisdom I could impart to my students. I was not disappointed. There are many.
McCann's starts each chapter with a quote from a well-known writer, which he uses to dive deeply into a point of consideration. One of the wisest bits he professes here is that it is okay to fail, that failing is a new beginning, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. The quote that begins that chapter is from Samuel Beckett: "No matter. Try again. Fail. Fail better." Most people think of failure as a negative thing rather than as the challenge to think differently. McCann also advises that a writer should listen to editors but that it is okay to disagree with them. A writer has to go with his/her intuition.
Since all writing is a reflection of life, some of his best counsel can be applied to all people, not just scribes: "Be daring. Be original. Nothing good is ever achieved through predictability." and "In the end, the only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart. Rage on." Any more would just be words. Rage on, indeed.
Jim's June 2017 pick, 2 of 5
It will not matter if you had read The Girl with All the Gifts before opening Carey's latest; I had not and was hooked from page one.
A mysterious plague has swept the world changing the infected into "hungries," zombie-like creatures who feed on human flesh and can track people by their body heat and odor. A group of soldiers and scientists roam the English countryside in a kind of super tank looking for anything they can that will lead to a cure. They come upon something totally unexpected, and that's when all hell breaks loose.
Carey sets the tension high right from the start, partly by using an omniscient narrator. After a few rounds of getting to know the players, it's clear that these characters are after different objectives. As with most "zombie" stories, the real monsters are the ones out to save mankind. A rather bleak outlook, but one I had a hard time pulling myself away from.
Needless to say, I am going back for the Girl.
Jim's June 2017 pick, 3 of 5
Initially, this book reminded me of The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell, about a young optimistic woman who took a job in a high school in a rough section of Los Angeles and used writing as a means of helping her students to discover that they had a lot more going for them than they were led to believe by their circumstances.
Peterson, a poet and actress, treads similar territory, but, instead a public high school, Peterson's students are incarcerated young men on Riker's Island with little to lose. Teaching can be tough enough, but Peterson's task seems especially difficult. Her approach is to rely on her strengths, respect, poetry, and performing.
It is obvious that Peterson is a poet. Her words vividly describe the world of jailhouse education and have a rhythm that draws the reader in. At the same time, Peterson holds nothing back and laces her language with street talk that might offend some readers. The real offense to the author is how so many people have written off these kids as being beyond spending time and attention on, resulting in misplaced fear and fury. She has much to say on the topic, and we all should listen.
Jim's June 2017 pick, 4 of 5
War is hell, as the old saying goes. In Heller's hands, war is hellishly funny, absurd, and tragic, too.
John Yossarian, a bombardier, just wants to go home. He is haunted by the death of a fellow airman and is sure that if he continues to fly, he will die as well; however, in order to be discharged, he either has to prove that he is crazy or fly the requisite number of missions. His aversion to taking part in missions is proof that he is sane, and his commanding officer regularly raises the flight minimum. Yossarian is trapped by Catch-22, which everyone but he knows about even though it doesn't exist.
This modern classic escaped me for many years, but I am so glad that I finally crossed paths with Yo-Yo, Milo, Major Major and the rest of the asylum of characters. It is just the right book for this time when so many tragic, funny, absurd events saturate the headlines each day.
Jim's June 2018 pick, 5 of 5
How do you try to be normal when your actions define you as anything but? What if your whole identity is wrapped up in one moment that you would do anything to take back but cannot? Sebastian Cody did something tragically horrible when he was four years old, something that tore his family apart. A decade later, when the chance for a new beginning seems to present itself, Sebastian grabs for it with all his might only to find that you can't escape your past. He knows that the one way out of the pain he's felt for so long, one that began with a gun, is with another pull of the trigger.
Powerful, sensitive, suspenseful, Lyga pulled this one off masterfully. Tragedy hangs from every page, yet hope sat right beside it. The author had me guessing as to what Sebastian would ultimately do. This book even made me reflect on my own actions and the legacies left behind because of them, a sign of a well-told tale. I have never read anything by this author before but will be sure to keep him on my radar.
Jim's May 2017 pick, 1 of 3
Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson
Okay, the cover alone made me want to read this book. Seriously, look at it. You have to admit that is one eye-grabbing image. And the kicker is that that stuffed racoon is in her possession (Lawson's father is a taxidermist).
Throughout this book, Lawson explains that she suffers from mental illness. The further I got into it, the less I thought that she had issues and the more I thought that she was normal. Either that or we all suffer a mental illness. As Robin Williams once said, or maybe this is a paraphrasation, we are all born with a certain amount of insanity, don't waste it. Maybe Jenny Lawson just has a wee bit more than the rest of us. And she definitely is not wasting it.
Lawson is one funny observer of life's quirkiness. I laughed my way through each chapter and found her arguments with spellcheck to be especially hilarious. She has a tendency to invent words that spellcheck objects to. By the way, spellcheck didn't like my word in the last paragraph paraphrasation, either. To which I say, as Ms. Lawson did in her book, "Forget you, Spellcheck. I am going to be furiously happy, no matter what you think." You should, too.
Jim's May 2017 pick, 2 of 3
Anyone who has grown up in the last fifty years or had kids during that time will surely remember the children's book The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. In that book, and a few others by the author, we follow Peter, a little boy with a lot of curiosity and imagination. In her book, Pinkney pays homage to Keats, telling his story of how he became a writer and brought Peter to life.
To be honest, I am not sure if this is a book meant for kids only. I read it because of my fondness for the Peter books and can easily see how it would appeal to other adults who grew up with them; however, the presentation is very much for children. Let's say that it is for the child in all of us.
Pinkney does an excellent job of writing in the style of Keats, and the illustrators have captured the look of his work. Keats's story is interesting and complex and will definitely elicit questions from young readers about such things as the need to change one's name and why people treat others as they do.
A Poem for Peter is a good book for those of us who are old enough to remember and those who are young and still learning of the magic of books.
Jim's May 2017 pick, 3 of 3
As I have mentioned in a review of The Nightingale, WW2 is such a ripe topic that I think people will never grow tired of it as a source for stories. This book is a good example of that dense complexity of interest.
While other soldiers were fighting on the front lines to keep Democracy safe, a small group of men scattered throughout Europe were working toward keeping Western culture from being stolen and lost forever. They were dubbed the Monuments Men and their job was to retrieve from the Nazis thousands of works of art that were plundered to be a part of Der Fuhrermuseum, planned by Hitler himself to be the greatest museum in the world.
A few years ago, George Clooney made a movie of this story. His version is a romanticized take on what really happened. Edsel's book lays out the events much more straightforwardly, allowing the real-life drama to carry its own weight. The author had me turning pages furiously throughout.
One thing Edsel does in the book is detail Hitler's final days and his deteriorating mental state, which frighteningly resembles that of the current President.
The Monuments Men is an exciting look at one aspect of WW2 that often gets ignored.
Jim's April 2017 pick, 1 of 2
I unabashedly like Mitch Albom's books. They can be corny at times (some might even say preachy), but even so, he writes about the positive effects of human interaction. Our lives are complicated in so many ways, yet, under the surface, when we take the time to look, there is a gentle beauty and simplicity holding us together. Often we are too caught up in the day-to-day demands for our attention that we miss what really matters.
This is true for Frankie Presto, an orphan, who is haunted by identity issues and never seems to be whole, always looking for that missing piece from his life. Since childhood, Frankie demonstrates an affinity for playing the guitar. As a gift, he is given a set of strings which, at key moments in his life, turn a bright blue, one at a time, hence the title. Yet, Frankie finds that talent cannot replace contentment, no matter how much of the former one has.
Frankie's talent takes him far, and throughout his life, he rubs elbows with real life famous musicians. A fun part of the book is when these celebrities, Tony Bennett, Lyle Lovett, Wynton Marsalis, and Burt Bacharach, to name a few, relate their stories of friendship with Frankie. There is even a stop at Woodstock. Far out!
If you are looking for an uplifting story about the mysteries of life and music, pick up a copy of The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.
Jim's April 2017 pick, 2 of 2
It's a pretty sure bet that each of us has gone through a period of time wherein we feel like we just don't measure up, that we are expendable, and that at any moment, a giant hook will appear to sweep us offstage to deposit us on life's trash heap, where we think we belong. Mike Mitchell, the protagonist of The Rest of Us Just Live Here, is fully immersed in this phase of life: a totally unspectacular high school senior year, uncontrollable OCD manifestations, a politically ambitious mom and an alcoholic dad, an infatuation with the most beautiful girl who has him stuck in the friend zone, and an incredible group of friends, all of whom far outshine him. What other conclusion can one make when your best friend is a half-god - of cats, nonetheless? Yet, that's Mike's place in life, until mysterious blue lights start appearing and outsider teens begin dying.
At first I thought the title of each chapter was symbolic. The characters mentioned in the description of a chapter never seemed to fit the action within. By the end of the book, however, it became clear that everything is related and fit seamlessly into the story. So don't get put off by it; the wait is worth it.
This seems to be the author's point: even if you do feel odd and a bit of a misfit, wait. Today is but a blip, and in the end, each of us has the potential to be the hero of our own story.
Jim's March 2017 pick, 1 of 2
When Mr. Noah was named as new host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, I was totally unfamiliar with his name and his work. I have since watched a comedy special of his stand-up routine as well many episodes of his show and now I have read this book. The long and the short is that this guy is very funny.
Noah makes many observations about growing up in South Africa at the tail end of apartheid. His humor stems from not only living with the repercussions of the now defunct political system but also being a child and trying to make sense of the chaos around him. This guy has a sharp wit.
When we are children, we all learn to game the situations we find ourselves in; growing up poor, Noah took advantage as much as he could to hilarious effect.
Brimming with commentary on people and politics, Born a Crime is an entertaining look at a life and time few of us here in America know about. Noah shows that the adage is true: truth really is stranger than fiction.
Jim's March 2017 pick, 2 of 2
There is grace and wonder all around us. To be aware of them takes a special kind of seeing.
Marie-Laurie and Werner are two teenagers growing up in difficult times in different parts of Europe; she is literally blind and he is blind to the harshness of people in wartime. Both are swept up in the horrors of World War II and lose their childhood innocence through terrible ordeals. Ultimately, they find redemption after a brief encounter.
Lyrical and moving in so many ways, All The Light We Cannot See is a must-read.
Jim's December 2016 pick, 1 of 2
If you are a fan of J.K. Rowling, you probably already know about the series she has written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. If, perchance this bit of news has evaded you, get ready for a treat.
Career of Evil is the third book in the Cormoran Strike series, about a one-legged British private detective, facing crime and villainy with his gal-Friday, Robin Ellacott. In this installment, Robin takes on a larger role than in the previous two volumes, as she prepares to wed and becomes the obsession of a serial killer seeking vengeance against Strike.
Galbraith-Rowling writes in a style that is just as captivating as her Harry Potter series. Like those books, these are engaging and full of twists and memorable characters. If you are looking for a gift for a friend or yourself, the Cormoran Strike novels are a sure bet.
Jim's December 2016 pick, 2 of 2
In addition to working in a bookstore, I am a big fan of bookstores. Everywhere I travel, I make it a point to check out the local booksellers. This book captures the best of the best in illustration and prose. A good book to peruse and plan for future excursions. I love it.
Jim's November 2016 pick
Growing up, I fondly remember watching the Carol Burnett Show. It was such a zany program that I never knew what was going to happen next, except that it was going to be funny I loved watching the skits, especially when the actors tried not to break up when someone, usually Tim Conway, did something unexpected. It was a show I looked forward to viewing each week. Naturally, when I saw this book, I just had to take a stroll down memory lane.
In Such Good Company is Ms. Burnett's memoir of the years she spent working on her show. She reminisces about her favorite moments and guest stars. At times, reading about a particularly memorable skit, I could almost see it all play out again in my mind. I found very interesting the segments she related about her early years in show business, recalling when she had to juggle appearing on the Garry Moore Show and performing on Broadway, and later how she enticed some of the best writers, choreographers, and the inimitable Bob Mackie to make her weekly hour one of the best on television.
You'll be glad you had this time together with Ms. Bennett and the gang.
Jim's October 2016 pick
If you need to ask why you should buy this book, you have not experienced this musical theater masterpiece and should probably start by listening to the cast recording before diving into Hamilton the Revolution. This book gives the history of the show, the libretto, and a treasure trove of photos. If the Hamilton fan in your household has not purchased this yet, keep it mind for the upcoming holidays. It will undoubtedly bring a lot of good cheer. Oh, and don't miss the PBS special on Hamilton later this month.
Jim's September 2016 pick, 1 of 3
Reading Woodson's latest, her first novel for adults, I thought back to my childhood and the friendships I had forged with the neighborhood kids. Friendships so strong that my buddies and I knew that they would last forever. Nothing was going to tear us apart. Yet, forever is a long time. And life has a way of sneaking up and changing things on you. Before I knew it, my friends and I were grown ups and different people than we knew when we were so young. We were lost to experiences we never saw coming and were never quite able to find our way back again.
Another Brooklyn brought me back to those times, as I discovered the world of August, the protagonist, being raised by her father in Brooklyn, after having left her mother back in Sweet Grove, Tennessee. The whys and the hows are for you to discover between the covers of this brisk yet deeply thoughtful exploration of the transition between innocence and the hard realities of life.
I dare you to read this and not be moved.
Jim's September 2016 pick, 2 of 3
In Taylor Branch's book Parting the Waters, he paints a very negative picture of the Kennedys as they deal with the civil rights events taking place in America during the early 1960s. The brothers K come across as opportunists and out of touch with the hardships suffered by the darker skinned citizens of our country. I was eager to read Tye's book to see if the impression of Bobby and his brother Jack would hold up. Yes, it does that and more.
The subtitle gets at the author's angle in telling Bobby's story, explaining how this privileged man went from being an ally of Joe McCarthy to his brother's pitbull of a campaign manager dead set on winning at any cost to his own person, not dependent on people's associations with his assassinated brother. Bobby never lost the drive to win, but he gained an understanding of the suffering experienced by those less fortunate than he and, through that, his soul.
In Branch's book, I was shocked at RFK's callousness. In Bobby Kennedy, Tye had me rooting for the younger Kennedy throughout. By the end, I was sure that America would have become a much finer place had Bobby been elected instead of gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador hotel. All that is speculation now, but I urge you to read the book and decide for yourself. For me, Bobby Kennedy has my vote.
Jim's September pick, 3 of 3In the book The Underground Railroad, Cora, a slave yearning for freedom and the main character of the story, states, "But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world." The author lays bare exactly that and it is not pretty.Whitehead plays with history here, imagining a real railroad that was built underground to aid runaway slaves. Cora is astonished when she sees it and asks, "Who built it?" The received reply, "Who builds anything in this country?," is echoed throughout the novel, revealing an insidious truth about America that haunts Cora: slaves, though reviled by white society, are the driving force behind the expansion of this country, a necessary evil.Whitehead seems to explore the evolution of our current racial strife when a slave catcher talks about Manifest Destiny, "I prefer the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilize. And destroy what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races, If not lift up, subjugate. And if not to subjugate. exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription-the American imperative." Years after Cora has reached the north and is free after so much hardship, she weighs the horrors of World War I to her experiences, "The Great War had always been between the white and the black. It always would be."
In delving into our country's past, Whitehead uncovers a bitter truth about our present, that we have yet to fully deal with the consequences of our hubris and oppression, the Black Lives Matter movement being one unpleasant reminder of America's dark history. The Underground Railroad is not be missed.
Jim's July 2016 pick, 1 of 2
Malcolm X has always been one of my heroes; he is even more so since I finished this book.
It always seemed logical that Malcolm X, and other civil rights leaders, are on par with our nation's founding fathers. They all fought for the same thing: freedom from the tyrannies they saw governing their lives. Malcolm X had to overcome the straight-jacket limitations placed on all non-whites by society that defined him as less than human. As a result, in his early life, he lived like an animal as a hustler and drug addict. Like a phoenix, he rose from the ashes of those years to become a religious firebrand, promoting the Nation of Islam, an organization that not only saved him, but in the end, brought about his demise.
Even though the book came out over fifty years ago, the life lessons taught in Autobiography apply to our lives today. Toward the end of the book, once he had learned to overcome his hatred for all whites, he states "that the white man's not inherently evil, but America's racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings." If that is not a summation of where America is today, nothing is. It explains so much in so few words.
I highly recommend this book not only as a study of a life but also of a society that has not learned from its mistakes.
Jim's July 2016 pick, 2 of 2
Disclosure: My older son just graduated from basic training. I read this book as a precursor to his eventual leaving the army. I got quite an education.
Junger's premise here is that soldiers who come home from the military are not psychologically messed up (think PTSD); instead, they return to a society that is itself damaged. This makes a soldier's transition back into that society more difficult, especially since the society cannot or refuses to see its own shortcomings. Junger gives many examples to support his claims, ranging from frontier to contemporary life. What stuck with me the most is the idea that America is essentially at war with itself. Considering our current political stalemate, I cannot help but agree, which is sad for all of us, especially us common folks who cannot afford to be beyond caring.
Like Coates's Between the World and Me, this is required reading for every American citizen.
Jim's April 2016 pick, 1 of 2
I am an Anglophile and a Bryson fan, so this book is a win-win for me. As a companion piece to his Notes from a Small Island, Bryson offers a travelog of his walking trip along the longest straight line through Britain.
The impetus for this journey is his newly-earned status as a British citizen. He explains in great detail that to become a citizen of the realm one has to memorize a lot of minutiae, including the longest geographical line through Britain, something, Bryson points out, the study guide for the citizenship test gets wrong.
And that is the joy of The Road to Little Dribbling, Bryson, turning up his inner crank to eleven as he walks his way north, pointing out to anyone and everyone in his way, whether they like it or not, how stupid they really are. Occasionally, he finds something he likes, but mostly he complains in funny, biting detail. Enjoy.