Best Physical Books, E-Books, and E-Audiobooks at the Library: September 29, 2021

  • Fuzz by Mary Roach (physical book available at the library; Nonfiction: Animals): Animals do the darndest things–just ask bestselling author Mary Roach. After writing about the science behind human cadavers, space travel and life as a soldier, she turns her attention to criminals in the wild in Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law. This book is such a rich stew of anecdotes and lore that it’s best savored slowly, bit by bit. Roach doles out surprising true tales from her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations, such as the story of a woman who returned home to find a leopard in her bed watching TV, or one about bear bandits in Pitkin County, Colorado, who tend to prefer premium brands of ice cream like Haagen-Dazs over brands like Western Family, which they apparently won’t touch. Roach also tackles deeply serious topics in Fuzz, such as the death and destruction caused by certain wandering elephants, or bears whose DNA needs to be traced in order to track down one who killed a person. But no matter the situation, Roach approaches it with contagious enthusiasm, gifting readers with sentences like this one about a tourist lodge in India: “I love this kind of place, love the surreal decay of it, love the clerk who does not know where breakfast is served or even if breakfast is served, love everything, really, except the rat turds on my balcony.” As Roach marvels at this wild world, she brings home the fact that, as one expert put it, “When it comes to wildlife issues, seems like we’ve created a lot of our own problems.” Roach is never one to proselytize, however, jokingly calling herself “Little Miss Coexistence” as she challenges herself not to set a trap for that roof rat pattering on her deck. Nonetheless, Fuzz will open readers’ eyes to a myriad of animal rights issues, and possibly change their attitudes about how to approach them. When it comes to handling pesky rodents and birds, for instance, Roach concludes, “Perhaps the model should be shoplifting. Supermarkets and chain stores don’t poison shoplifters; they come up with better ways to outsmart them.”
  • The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny and Robert Bathurst (e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app; mystery): Louise Penny tackles social unrest in a post-pandemic world in The Madness of Crowds (15 hours), the 17th novel in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. Part whodunit, part cultural commentary, this latest installment finds Gamache at a crossroads between his personal ethics and the requirements of his position. The audiobook is performed by Robert Bathurst, who has lent his voice to several of the most recent books in the series. Bathurst’s narration is calm and collected yet also earnest, reflecting the blend of emotion and professionalism that Gamache embodies as an investigator. While Bathurst’s voice is subdued, it is also engaging, bringing the story’s mystery, relationships and ethical introspections to life in a straightforward but heartfelt way. He also provides a variety of voices for the wider cast of characters, keeping the plot moving through the flowing cadence of conversations. Positioned at the intersection of science and humanity, The Madness of Crowds draws in its readers with murder but keeps them listening through its challenging moral conundrums. It’s perfect for listeners seeking both captivating intrigue and insightful reflection.
  • The Dressmakers of Auschwitz by Lucy Adlington (physical book available at the library; European history): Clothing can accomplish many things. It can bestow group identity or express individuality. Creating it can be both an artistic outlet and drudgery. It can reflect the highest standards of craftsmanship or be as simple as sewing a seam. It is both performance and practicality. And, as we learn from Lucy Adlington’s The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, clothing can be a lifeline out of hell. It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely (or hideous) juxtaposition than a fashion salon in Auschwitz. But there it was: a fashion studio and workshop literally yards away from the interrogation block used to torture prisoners. Author and costume historian Adlington discovered the “Upper Salon” while researching a book on the global textile industry during World War II. Established by the larcenous and amoral Hedwig Hoss, wife of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Hoss, the salon’s official mission was to provide beautiful, haute couture clothing to the wives of top-ranking Nazis, female SS guards at the camp and, foremost, Frau Hoss herself. The salon’s other purpose was to provide a safe haven for the enslaved female laborers who, under the supervision of Marta Fuchs, a Jewish prisoner from Slovakia, cut, sewed and altered the outfits that would adorn their tormentors. Adlington does an excellent job of telling the story of Marta and all the other women whose lives were spared because they had the skills to work in the comparative safety of the Upper Salon. She also provides the greater historical context of how the Nazi government viewed fashion as both a powerful propaganda weapon and an important tool for funding the Holocaust. This information is helpful in understanding the journeys these designers, seamstresses and cutters took to Auschwitz and the Upper Salon, and overall Adlington weaves historical information into the individual dressmakers’ stories well. But the most powerful lesson from The Dressmakers of Auschwitz is how the bonds of friendship, family and skill allowed these women to survive with humanity while resisting the brutality around them.
  • Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick (physical book available at the library; American history): As the familiar story goes, George Washington, the Revolutionary War’s iconic general, led the Colonies to an improbable victory over the crushing British monarchy and its oppressive taxation. But according to Nathaniel Philbrick in Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Washington’s real challenges as a leader began after that. With abolitionists to the north, enslavers to the south and anti-Federalists everywhere (even in his own Cabinet), Washington set out just months after his 1789 inauguration on an uncomfortable, arduous tour of the shaky new union he felt compelled to unite. In the late summer of 2018, in a time hardly less politically fraught, Philbrick, his wife and their “red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever,” Dora, embarked from Washington’s Mount Vernon to follow in the former president’s footsteps. Inspired by Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck–who wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”–Philbrick expected “a journey of quirky and lighthearted adventure” that instead “proved more unsettling and more unexpected than I ever could have imagined.” Visiting the cities Washington once rode through on his white horse, or paraded through in a cream-colored carriage with two enslaved postillions, or strode into town wearing a simple brown suit (the new president had a feel for political theater), Philbrick delivers the details. He explains how Washington became “the father of the American mule,” debunks myths about the first president’s wooden teeth and enriches facts with help from local archivists, librarians, curators, docents and even the descendants of those who were there. But Philbrick keeps one foot in, and a respectful perspective on, the present throughout, assessing hazards then–such as when Washington’s horses fell off a ferry–and now–such as when Philbrick’s own sailboat nearly capsized in a vicious storm on his way to Newport, Rhode Island. In this book, Washington emerges as the complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader that his newborn country desperately needed. The quantity and quality of the details Philbrick gathers as he straddles past and present make this an extraordinary read.
  • Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead (physical book available at the library; crime fiction): Somewhere near the end of Colson Whitehead’s tragicomic Harlem Shuffle, I found myself giggling in spite of myself. What was happening on the page was horrible, but it was hilarious. It was hilarious in the way that the comeuppance of the white supremacist clowns at the end of “Breaking Bad” was hilarious. The clowns in Whitehead’s story probably didn’t deserve their fate quite as much, but when they underestimated who they were dealing with, their fate was sort of sealed. Indeed, like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” Harlem Shuffle acknowledges a sense of morality and an ethical code that may be strange to those of us who aren’t crooks or cynics. Whitehead’s Ray Carney is one of those rare people who can walk the line between crooked and straight and live to tell the tale. By day, he’s a genial Harlem furniture salesman. By night, now and then, he fences “gently used items.” He is a genuinely devoted family man, not just to his smart, sensible wife and adorable kids but also to his cousin and childhood bestie, Freddie. Everyone knows a Freddie. He’s the perennial problem; he’s the one who gets you into the trouble you can’t even imagine. Yet you can’t quit Freddie, because he’s charming and he’s handsome and he’s stupid, and most of all, he’s blood. Like Dante leading us through the levels of hell, Whitehead presents the reader with the levels of rottenness in early to mid-1960s New York City. There are heists and stickups and beat downs, as well as the hypocrisy of the Black upper crust who think Carney is too dark-skinned to join their club. There’s the tiresome regularity of racist police violence and the protection money paid to the cops and local hoods with lovely monikers like Miami Joe, Cheap Brucie, Yea Big and Louie the Turtle. Downtown, the rottenness is carried out in pristine office towers built by rich white folks who own not only the buildings but also the machinery of the city itself. Carney gets caught up in all of it thanks to a smidgeon of criminal DNA he inherited from his dad and, inevitably, Freddie’s fecklessness. At the end we see the chasm from which the World Trade Center’s twin towers will rise, the fruit of a deal between more compromised New York mucky mucks. Sic transit gloria mundi says the author. Thus passes worldly glory. Harlem Shuffle is yet another Colson Whitehead masterpiece.
  • Unbound by Tarana Burke (physical book available at the library; memoir: social science): Before she was the world-famous creator of #MeToo, the movement that sparked a reckoning with the mistreatment of women, especially women of color, Tarana Burke was a community organizer and journalist. Her experience as a reporter will be no surprise to anyone who reads Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, her unflinching, open-hearted, beautifully told account of becoming one of the most consequential activists in America. Burke was molested by a neighborhood boy in the Bronx when she was 7. Over the years, despite the presence of several loving adults in her life, Burke was repeatedly sexually assaulted. “I was a grown woman before I truly understood the word rape and was able to relate it to my experience,” she writes. “Language like rape, molestation, and abuse were foreign to me as a child. I had no definitions and no context. Nobody around me talked like that.” In spite of her trauma, Burke writes with humor and gratitude about her experiences. She delves into the rich history of her family, led by a granddaddy who “believed in celebrating Blackness in as many ways as possible” and a mother who was a devout Catholic. In school, Burke was both academically gifted and an agitator who spent time in the principal’s office. A high school leadership program led Burke to Selma, Alabama, where she laid the groundwork for #MeToo after realizing there was an utter lack of programs to support and protect young women as they spoke their truth about sexual abuse. Burke also writes honestly about her reaction to #MeToo becoming a viral phenomenon on social media in 2017, initially without her knowledge or participation. After spending more than a decade traveling around the country, conducting workshops and speaking on panels about surviving sexual assault, she worried social media would water down or misuse her work. Ultimately Burke realized that “all the folks who were using the #metoo hashtag, and all the Hollywood actresses who came forward with their allegations, needed the same thing that the little Black girls in Selma, Alabama, needed–space to be seen and heard. They needed empathy and compassion and a path to healing.” Unbound is not just a thoroughly engrossing read. It’s also an important book that helps us understand the woman who has been so influential as our country struggles to acknowledge women’s trauma.
  • The Other Merlin by Robyn Schneider (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): After writing four YA novels featuring contemporary realism and romance, Robyn Schneider is throwing her outsiders-in-love antics back–way back. In The Other Merlin, Schneider makes her first foray into fantasy, retelling the legend of King Arthur for today’s teens. The first book in a planned trilogy, it contains enough mystery, sex, mistaken identities and scandalous clashes of class and nobility that it could be titled Bridgerton: Knights of the Round Table. The titular “other” Merlin is Emry, a highly skilled teenage wizard who spends her days performing special-effects illusions on the sly at her local theater while her father, the O.G. Merlin, trains her less talented twin brother, Emmett. After Merlin vanishes, the king sends a request for Emmett to take Merlin’s place at court. But when Emmett is incapacitated by a spell that backfires, Emry decides to fill in for her brother, chopping off her hair and binding her chest to look the part. She wants to ensure that her family stays in the king’s good graces, but she also sees an opportunity to nurture her talents, since girls aren’t allowed to learn or practice magic. Meanwhile, Prince Arthur has just pulled that silly sword out of the stone. This stuns his family, who don’t think much of Arthur’s love for books and gardening, not to mention his buddy-buddy relationship with an unfairly dishonored Lancelot. When Emry arrives, the three become fast friends. They form a team of outsiders who are trying to grow into the best versions of themselves, fate be damned. Can Arthur be a good king if he defies his father’s wishes? Can Lancelot be a knight if he loves another man? Can Emry be a great wizard like her father even though she’s a woman? As she explores the answers to these questions, Schneider reworks the classical hero’s journey through an unapologetically feminist lens. Though her author’s note mentions working on The Other Merlin in 17th-century libraries, Schneider is hardly precious with her source material. She maneuvers deftly through conversations about gender, sexuality and equity in a medieval setting that feels grounded and relatable. Is any of it canonical? Probably not, but who cares! In a world filled with wizards, spells and glowing magical swords, why can’t everyone by bisexual? It certainly makes for more interesting love triangles, which are plentiful. Arthurian legend, after all, is basically a centuries-old soap opera, so why not make it extra soapy? Funny, thrilling, brave and bold, The Other Merlin is the perfect way to pass the time until the next Renaissance Faire. Schneider’s Arthurian tale stands out amid a crowd of old, dusty duplicates.
  • All These Bodies by Kendare Blake (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): It’s 1958, and a serial killer is targeting the Midwest. Their crimes are dubbed the Bloodless Murders, because the victims are all found exsanguinated. The police are baffled by the absence of blood at the scenes, as well as the lack of any signs of struggle. When the Carlson family is murdered in the small Minnesota town of Black Deer Falls, local police find a teenage girl, Marie Catherine Hale, in the Carlson home, drenched in their blood. They arrest her and charge her as an accomplice, certain that she couldn’t have carried out the murders on her own. But Marie is unwilling to talk to investigators. Instead, Marie offers to tell her story to the sheriff’s son, Michael Jensen, an aspiring reporter. Thoughtful and unassuming, Michael is a receptive ear for the tale Marie has to tell, even if both a tenacious prosecutor and the townsfolk resent him for it. But as Michael begins to fall for Marie, he struggles to be both her confessor and her savior. All These Bodies is narrated by Michael, so readers only see Marie through his eyes. Her confession is rife with deflections and uncertainty. It’s clear that she has experienced trauma, though she never reveals its details and is generally spare with information about herself. Readers will more readily connect with Michael’s best friend, Percy, who supports Michael’s dream of escaping their small town, even though he knows it will mean losing him. The two share a deep bond, and Percy is vehemently protective of Michael, sometimes at a great personal cost. Author Kendare Blake is best known for her paranormal horror novel Anna Dressed in Blood and her dark fantasy series, Three Dark Crowns. All These Bodies, a historical mystery with touches of gothic fiction, crime and the paranormal, is a notable departure for her. Blake is sparse with historical details, which keeps the story moving but can also make its 1950s setting seem arbitrary. However, her depiction of Marie’s misogynist treatment by the press feels both accurate to the period and ripped from contemporary headlines. Readers who enjoy mysteries heavy with ambiguity and light on straightforward, spelled-out solutions should plan for Blake to keep them reading well past bedtime.
  • The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; middle grade): In a return to the fantasy genre of her Newbery Medal-winning The Tale of Despereaux, author Kate DiCamillo spins the tale of a young girl named Beatryce, who is discovered in a monastery barn in the company of an unlikely source of comfort: a frighteningly ornery goat named Answelica. Feverish and crying, Beatryce is found by a kindhearted monk named Brother Edik, who has foretold that a child “will unseat a king.” Because the prophecy specifies that the child will be a girl, the message “has long been ignored.” So begins the marvelous story of Beatryce, Answelica, Brother Edik and Jack Dory, a lively and illiterate orphan. Brother Edik learns that Beatryce’s mother taught her to read and write, a rarity at a time when even boys aren’t often taught such skills. Meanwhile, the king and his henchmen are trying to track down Beatryce. The story quickly becomes a suspenseful, fast-moving tale of female empowerment and an ode to the written word and the power of love, all told in DiCamillo’s signature heartfelt style. DiCamillo is often at her best when writing about animals, and Answelica is an unforgettable wonder as memorable as Winn-Dixie the dog and Ulysses the squirrel. In the beautifully spare prose that has become one of her hallmarks, DiCamillo poses big questions, such as “What does it mean to be brave?” and invites readers to discover their own answers. The Beatryce Prophecy is full of dark forces, but hope and love prevail, and Beatryce comes to understand that the world is “filled with marvel upon marvel, too many marvels to ever count.” Two-time Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall brings DiCamillo’s ragtag band of characters to life in joyful, energetic black-and-white illustrations. She establishes the powerful bond between Beatryce and Answelica from the start in a radiant mangerlike scene that wouldn’t be out of place on a holiday greeting card. The book’s medieval atmosphere is underscored by a series of illuminated letters that begin each chapter, and additional decorative flourishes throughout remind readers that this is indeed a special tale with a distinctive setting. The Beatryce Prophecy is certain to be cherished. “What does, then, change the world?” DiCamillo’s omniscient narrator asks. The answer is as masterful as DiCamillo and Blackall’s creation: “Love, and also stories.”
  • The Morning Star by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Martin Aitken (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): The first thing you’ll notice about award-winning Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s The Morning Star is how big it is. At almost 700 pages, it’s a book that takes up considerable real estate not just on the nightstand or in a bag but also within the mind, demanding a particular kind of mental stamina. It’s August on the southern coast of Norway, and a big, bright celestial object has appeared in the sky. No one knows what to make of this new star. There are speculations from scholars and experts on its sudden presence, but could there be more to this phenomenon than just science? The title’s biblical innuendo is on point. Knausgaard not only directly and indirectly philosophizes about Jesus, Satan, purgatory, sin and resurrection but also uses these touchstones to inspire the characters whose various points of view fill these pages. There isn’t just one story to follow in The Morning Star but several, as the narrative bounces from one captivating, relatable, likable character to another. Amid these characters’ experiences in love, marriage, teenage angst, career disappointments, mental health and global warming, the novel progresses with an unflagging consideration of the roles and significance of living and dying. In this way, The Morning Star feels at once about nothing and everything. Knausgaard is more interested in using the novel’s considerable length to introduce loose ends instead of neatly tying them up. Then again, for those who have read Knausgaard’s previous work (such as his six-volume My Struggle series), this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. The Morning Star is dark, eerie, mesmerizing, and, yes, totally worth its size.
  • Daughter of the Morning Star by Craig Johnson (physical book available at the library; mystery): Daughter of the Morning Star, the 17th book in Craig Johnson’s riveting mystery series, proves that Sheriff Walt Longmire does his best work on the page, even compared to the acclaimed Netflix adaptation of the series, “Longmire.” Longmire walks a fine line, serving the predominantly white populace of Absaroka County, Wyoming, as well as the members of the Cheyenne Indian Nation who live on the local reservation. When Chief Lolo Long of the Cheyenne Tribal Police asks for his assistance in investigating death threats against her niece, Jaya Long, the standout star of the Lame Deer Lady Stars high school basketball team, Longmire’s penchant for justice makes it easy to say yes. With the help of his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, Longmire begins an intensive investigation that he believes is tied into the disappearance of Jaya’s older sister, Jeanie, a year ago, Jeanie was with friends on her way back from a party in Billings, Montana, when their van broke down. While repairs were being made, she wandered off, never to be seen again. Longmire and Bear take the usual route of interviewing all of Jeanie’s contacts, hoping to find something the police or FBI missed. Some of the witnesses are helpful enough; some, not so much. A farmer, Lyndon Iron Bull, claims to have seen her singing in a snowstorm and warns of an ancient Cheyenne legend known as Wandering Without, “a spiritual hole that devours souls.” Writing from Longmire’s point of view for the entirety of this fast-paced mystery, Johnson uses crisp prose and sharp dialogue to create a sense of immediacy as the investigation moves toward its inevitable, thrilling conclusion. The case also allows Johnson to incorporate horrifying statistics about how young Native American women are substantially more likely to be murdered, to be sexually assaulted or to commit suicide than the national average. Longmire knows that what happened to Jeanie and what’s threatening Jaya lie anywhere along that spectrum, and that’s what scares him. As readers, you’ll be scared too.
  • The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): What does it mean to listen? What can you hear if you pay close attention, especially in a moment of grief and questioning? In The Book of Form and Emptiness, Ruth Ozeki explores how we find meaning in the world and why each of our voices matter. As the novel opens, young Benny Oh’s father dies suddenly and violently. Benny’s loss and confusion is palpable, made all the more difficult by the voices he begins to hear emanating from all the objects around him. These voices are a burden, weighing Benny down with the emotional resonance of all things, from a silver spoon to a pair of scissors. He doesn’t know what to do with this information, and neither do the people around him. As Benny follows these voices and begins to sneak out of school, his mother, Annabelle, struggles to understand her child, even as she grieves and hoards. Annabelle’s job is to monitor the news, and her home bursts with plastic bags full of old newspapers and CDs, as well as her own piles of clothes in need of folding, unfinished craft projects and so much more. Ozeki’s brilliance is to never let Annabelle’s pile overwhelm the reader, offering glimpses of it only through Annabelle’s and Benny’s eyes, who in their grief often have trouble registering the tangible reality around them. As Benny and Annabelle try to find ways to be in and make sense of the world, questions of communication, loss and connection emerge. Ozeki’s prose is magnetic as she draws readers along, teasing out an ethereal and haunting quality through an additional narrator: that of a sentient Book, who speaks with Benny and helps to tell his story. The Book’s observations are beyond a human’s scope, with a universal objectivity blooming from a communication matrix among all books, like a mycelial network. Benny and Annabelle are characters you’ll never stop rooting for. They’re worthy of readers’ love as Ozeki meditates on the nature of objects, compassion and everyday beauty. After reading, you’ll be eager for this book to find its way into other readers’ hands.

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