Author Archives: Mackenzie Marrow

Book Club Spotlight – The Rim of the Prairie

Cover for The Rim of the Prairie. A photo of the Nebraska Prairie, with the large open sky taking up the majority of the cover.

Today, as we prepare for another Nebraska summer, we will be reading a classic of Nebraska literature, Rim of the Prairie by Bess Streeter Aldrich. Born in Iowa, Aldrich moved to Elmwood, Nebraska, with her husband and child in her late 20s.  Aldrich’s writing became a full-time job when her husband passed away in 1925, shortly after sending in the manuscript for what would become her first full-length novel, The Rim of the Prairie. Though not a native Nebraskan, Aldrich fully embraced the state as her own. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Nebraska and inducted posthumously into the Nebraska Hall of Fame in 1973. Her book A Lantern in Her Hand was the 2009 One Book One Nebraska.

Small and midwestern is Maple City when young banker Warner Field retreats to a lonely cabin on the Moore property for a vacation focused on his once great love for writing. While there, he happens upon artifacts of a young girl who once used the cabin. Small journal entries, a china doll, and an old photograph lead him to believe the owner of these items is long passed on. He finds fascination in her lush descriptions of the prairie all around him, her poetic styling and love for her surroundings touch him deeply. Through the journals, he learns of an mysterious tragedy, the girl’s entries abruptly stopping on her 18th birthday as she prepares to run away. Only a day before he departs from the cabin,  22-year-old Nancy Moore steps off the train and arrives home in Maple City for the first time in 4 years after her disappearance.

“There was something about the lunch that was gayer than usual. An atmosphere of fun pervaded it, a sense of exhilaration was upon every one. Nancy Moore seemed in some inexplicable way to be responsible for it. There was something infectious about her approval of life”

Bess Streeter Aldrich

This unassuming Nebraskan mystery romance contains a portrait of rural life during the turn of the century. Maple City and its inhabitants coexist in their own peculiar but charming and folksy ways with their own secrets kept close to their chests. In The Rim of the Prairie, Aldrich weaves her thoughts on life, her love for her husband, and the day-to-day foils and perseverance of prairie life. Appropriate for Book Groups of all ages, readers can enjoy the lush descriptions of the prairie in contrast with the bustling small town trying to stretch its wings into the modern day, and the mystery of the brown shawl. Encouraged to read by my mother, (Happy late Mother’s Day!) The Rim of the Prairie was one of the first books I read that took place in Nebraska. It gave me the words to shape my cultural identity and knowledge of our greater social landscape. As Aldrich said herself,  “I tried to do my bit in helping preserve a little of the spirit of these pioneers in fiction”.   

If you’re interested in requesting The Rim of the Prairie for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Aldrich, Bess Streeter. The Rim of the Prairie. University of Nebraska Press. 1966

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Book Club Spotlight – Pachinko

Cover for Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. A silhouette of a Korean women in a traditional Hanbok poses, facing down. In her skirt is the depiction of a woman, wearing a hankbok, with two young boys  looking out at a rocky coast line with a red sun in the background.

Pachinko by Asian-American Author Min Jin Lee is an epic historical novel that was a labor of love that spanned decades of work and research. Focusing on the imperial rule of Japan, Pachinko follows the diaspora of Koreans in Japan who faced racism and discrimination in both work and society. A National Book Award Finalist, the novel and Lee were awarded the Manhae Grand Prize for Literature, one of Korea’s highest honors in literature. The branching story of Pachinko revolves around the character of Sunja, who, as events transpire, is the perpetual foreigner in life. Not only is she literally a foreigner in Japan, but as a woman, impoverished widower, and carrying the shame of her firstborn’s father, she will always be on the outside of a society puppeteered by men above her station.  

On a small inlet outside Busan, Korea, Sunja is the young, mild-mannered, but steadfast daughter of a small lodging house owner. Living a fairly isolated life outside of the bustling town, Sunja encounters a much older man who gains her confidence and impregnates her. Believing he intends to marry her, Sunja is devastated to learn he is already married as her world crashes in on her. Before her due date, a sickly Protestant Minister offers to marry her out of the kindness of his heart to help support her and the soon-to-be-born child, Noa. Together the couple moved to Japan and had another son, Mozasu. As foreigners in Japan, the family experiences the daily hardship of poverty, World War II, and second-class citizenship as Koreans. Spanning 1910 to 1989, Pachinko follows the family as it grows and branches off in this sweeping epic of what it takes to love despite odds that will always be against them.  

“Living every day in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

– Min Jin Lee

Even though about 1 in every 7 Japanese adults play the game pachinko, the work is associated with ethnic Koreans. After the war’s devastation, Koreans in Japan had a hard time getting job opportunities, and the shady business welcomed them with open arms. And like many, Mozasu and Noa’s best option was through Pachinko, their lives, like the ball bearings on an uncontrollable path of fate. Lee’s Pachinko encourages and helps the reader discover a portion of history that adult Book Club groups can approach with an eye for themes of marginalization and forever ostracization as world events are woven around these minor players. Lee, who aimed to write “compelling stories of individuals who struggled to face historical catastrophes,” asks what choices are there when you are functionally powerless.

To see more of our Asian American  & Pacific Islander Voices book club titles for AAPI month, visit here 

If you’re interested in requesting Pachinko for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 6 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Lee, Min Jin. Pachinko. Grand Central Publishing. 2017.

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Book Club Spotlight- Dracula

Welcome to the 50th Book Club Spotlight! This project is a labor of love and curiosity, and I hope it has provided a solid resource for readers these past 2 years. 🙂 

cover for Dracula by Dram Stoker.

I know what you’re thinking- here at The Book Club Spotlight, we pride ourselves on always being on theme. So why, in spring, are we talking about Dracula? While spooky stories never go out of season, now is the best time to start your reading journey into the world of Dracula. Published in 1897 by Bram Stoker, the epistolary novel is composed of diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and transcripts. According to these, the chronological period of Dracula takes place from the beginning of May until early November, meaning one can easily read along day by day and experience the story in real time! So, I invite you to “come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring”.

On the 3rd of May, Jonathan Harker, a solicitor from Exeter, is well on his way to visit a client in Transylvania. This will be the most important deal of his short career, and he is eagerly awaiting the meeting. Little does he know that his client has something more in mind than a simple real estate agreement. As time passes and Jonathan doesn’t return from his trip, his fiancée, the savvy Mina, notices her dear friend Lucy Westenra is beginning to act strange. She experiences bouts of sleepwalking and anemia while large bats stalk the premises. Enlisting the help of Lucy’s own fiancé Arthur Holmwood, psychiatrist for the insane Dr. Seward, Texan cowboy Quincy Morris, and renowned physician Abraham Van Helsing, Mina must go to the ends of the earth and humanity to save those she loves from the fabled Vampire Count Dracula. 

It is a delight reading the origin of such an iconic figure. As the story progresses, the characters learn in real time what we, as an audience already know. What a vampire is, how to ward them off, and of course, that the Count is one himself. Stoker’s Dracula is many things- For a modern audience, it’s an allegory for xenophobia and how fear and distrust can lead to ultimate ends. For Stoker’s generation, the foreigners were the enemy that we must distrust for our safety. But as we read it through a modern lens, we can discuss the difference in moralities, racism, ableism, sexism, and the blatant misunderstanding of blood transfusion. Book Groups, teenaged and up, can enjoy and experience this classic work of fiction.   

If you or your group are interested in reading Dracula in its “true order” of events, I recommend reading through Dracula Daily.  Having its first run in 2020, Dracula Daily emails each chapter of the novel as it happens in real-time. The project has been likened to an online book club, as every year, readers on social media join together to discuss the latest events in the novel, and the experience has improved my own reading and analysis skills. Dracula Daily has even published its own physical version of the novel, with the story in chronological order, including snippets, jokes, and even drawings from book club members as they read along with you. There is much to learn from Dracula each year as we sit down to hear from our good friend Jonathan Harker.   

If you’re interested in requesting Dracula for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 11 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Norton. 1987.

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Book Club Spotlight- The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

Cover of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. A silhouette of a man against a full bookshelf

Obviously this week, National Library Week, is the best week of the year! Celebrations include Right to Read Day, National Library Workers Day, National Library Outreach Day, and Take Action for Libraries Day. While we all know the importance of the library ecosystem, former San Francisco Library Laureate, Allison Hoover Bartlett, shares the story of what happens when greed and personal gain take over and infiltrate the book market. In her book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, Bartlett follows the trail of notorious book thief John Charles Gilkey and peeks into the psyche of those who collect rare books, and what happens when that collecting becomes a compulsion.

Allison Bartlett entered into the world of book thieves by way of coincidence. A friend had come into possession of a stolen rare book after his brother’s passing, and Allison was drawn to its mysterious pages. As she felt this pull towards the illicit book, she began researching the history of book thievery, asking: “What makes someone cross the line from admirer to thief?”. It’s not long until two names come to her attention: Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer whose obsession with catching book thieves, leads Allison to the main focus of her story, John Charles Gilkey. For John, his (stolen) book collection is not about the contents of the books themselves, but merely the status it affords him. Growing up, he dreamed of being like the upper-crust gentlemen who honed grand libraries and garnered admiration. John takes to fraud and theft to achieve this dream, growing bolder and more self-assured as his collection grows. And his curation list? The Modern Library’s List of 100 Best Novels. Follow along with the strained and strange relationship between booksellers and the titular book thief. Where each believes the other is the true criminal. 

“It wasn’t merely a love of books that compelled him, but also what owning them would say about him. It’s a normal ambition—that our choice of music or cars or shoes reflects well on us—taken to the extreme.”

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Part True Crime, part history of book collecting and fervor, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is about trying to understand the psyche of these collectors and those who experience book-collecting mania, or Bibliomania. According to Bartlett, in rare book collections, the physical properties of the books, the memories associated with the title, or the historical importance of that edition are often more valuable than the actual contents within them. Book Club Groups will love the low-stakes True Crime aspect and exploring what in the mind can drive us to place such value on having personal library collections.  

As Bartlett finds herself more entrenched in the rare book collection space, she notes that it largely consists of rich white men. While their hobbies are viewed as intellectual, there has been a trend of treating young female celebrities and models who carry around the latest literary fiction novel (“Literary It Girls”) as lesser and shallow attempts at intellectualism. But what is their real difference? Rare book collecting and John Gilkey’s obsession with the status symbol he associated with the books he stole can bring to light a much-needed discussion about the value we place on our favorite pastime, classism and maybe even a hidden misogynistic agenda.

Further Resources:

If you’re interested in requesting The Man Who Loved Books Too Much for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Bartlett, Allison Hoover. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. Riverhead Books. 2009

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Book Club Spotlight – The Daughter of Time

Cover for The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. On a stark red background a portrait of Richard III peaks out from a decorated frame with a mild and uncertain frame.

With the British Royal Family gossip mill recently abuzz, and as the sun sets on Women’s History Month, now is the perfect opportunity to visit Josephine Tey’s 1951 novel The Daughter of Time, and take a step back to the 15th century to investigate the murderous reputation of Richard III. Holding the top spot in the British Crime Writers’ Association’s list of Top 100 Crime Novels of All TimeThe Daughter of Time is quite the influential novel, leading in part to the discovery of Richard III’s burial site in 2012. Like Nebraska’s own Mignon G. Eberhart, Tey wrote during what is called the “Golden Age of Crime Fiction”, and her novels continue to surprise and delight readers.

Hospitalized from his latest case, Inspector Alan Grant is at a loss for entertainment. Having counted the ceiling tiles and studied the comings and goings of his nurses, he is growing restless. It’s not until a friend suggests he attempt to solve a cold case from his hospital bed does inspiration strike. Examining a portrait of the late King Richard III, Grant (a fan of physiognomy) doesn’t see the ruthless uncle who would kill his two young nephews. He sees a gentle man, lost to time. With the help of the young American Researcher, Grant races across histories written by second hands with ulterior motives. And as the pair work to challenge myths and legends to clear Richard’s name, they can’t help but wonder, what could be gained by besmirching an usurped King?

“The truth of anything at all doesn’t lie in someone’s account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time. An advertisement in a paper, the sale of a house, the price of a ring.”

Josephine Tey

Chock full of wit and political intrigue, The Daughter of Time is a history lesson like no other. Our copies at the Commission include a 2013 introduction by the late author Robert Barnard whose overview of Josephine Tey (real name Elizabeth Mackintosh) includes her writing style, spot in history, and acknowledgments of prejudices characteristic of her time which are unfortunately present in the text. Book Club groups will enjoy exploring the very real mystery of Richard III and the unknown fate of the two Princes in the Tower against the safe and removed backdrop of Grant’s hospital bed. And the delightful repartee between characters cannot be understated, from puns to inquiring over the ownership of who gets to die in the Thames- Tey is truly a master of the genre.

If you’re interested in requesting The Daughter of Time for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 7 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Tey, Josephine. The Daughter of Time. Simon and Schuster. 1951

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Book Club Spotlight – A Beautiful Poison

Cover for A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang. A triangular vile covered in yellow jewels against an art deco styled background

Happy Women’s History Month! This month we’ll be featuring incredible women authors, and today’s Book Club Spotlight is written by none other than the brilliant Lydia Kang, MD. Author of numerous Adult, Young Adult, Non-Fiction, and Star Wars novels, Kang, an internal medicine physician in Omaha, combines her passion for medicine and literature in her award-winning historical/medical mysteries. Her debut novel, A Beautiful Poison, takes place in New York City, where she studied medicine at Columbia University and the New York University School of Medicine. 

In the upper echelon of 1918 New York City, everyone has secrets. In a society stuck between the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age, Americans are gripped by war, and the looming influenza outbreak, while Allene is chasing after her past. A past where she, Jasper, and Birdie were together. And finally, when they are all together again, Florence Waxworth gets herself poisoned in the middle of Allene’s engagement party! As the murdered bodies continue to fall around them, their hot-headed group is the only one who can solve the mystery. Torn apart by their whims and desires, the trio must face the influenza, a killer, and each other to make it out alive. 

“It was a fresh new day, served with a glorious sunrise and of course Florence’s untimely death to solve.”

Lydia Kang

For mature teens or adult book club groups looking for fast-paced mysteries to keep you on your toes, and mixed with the incredible setting, A Beautiful Poison is a joy to experience and try to solve alongside the characters. As a former resident and student, Kang’s heart shows when describing New York City and specifically Bellevue Hospital, which features heavily in the novel and includes the real pioneers of forensic medicine as integral figures in solving the medical mystery. The characters of Allene, Jasper, and Birdie are complicated and compelling, as they try to mend a friendship and deep love that may be too far gone.

Related Readings:

Radium Girls by Kate Moore

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

If you’re interested in requesting A Beautiful Poison for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 3 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Kang, Lydia. A Beautiful Poison. Lake Union Publishing. 2017

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Book Club Spotlight – Hector’s Bliss

A unique aspect of our Book Club Collection here at the Commission is our focus on Nebraska authors, settings, and stories, housing the hidden gems of Nebraska literature and history! Today’s pick for the Book Club Spotlight, in particular, focuses on a relatively unknown part of Nebraska’s Black History. While we know the story of white pioneers and homesteaders, there was also the incredible journey of formerly enslaved people who became landowners, farmers, and a community in the Sandhills. Hector’s Bliss: Black Homesteaders at Goose Lake, Nebraska, by Dennis Vossberg, is a historical fiction novel based on the incredible history of Black Homesteaders, who, under false pretenses, persevered in the harsh farmland until drought and the Dust Bowl overcame the whole region.

In the late 1800s, at the height of legalized racial segregation, just south of O’Neil, Nebraska, there was the short-lived story of Bliss, and the Black community members who called it home. During the economic downturn caused by the end of the Civil War, the newly freed people were looking for a reliable place to land. As newly married Hector and Julia Dixon were floundering in a small mining town, land promoters arrived, falsely promising flourishing farmland and untapped coal veins awaited them in the far reaches of the Nebraska Sandhills. The Dixons and 13 other families unknowingly move to the desert-like plains to start anew. Besought by harsh conditions, poverty, and rural isolation, their community works hard to create a solid foundation for the future despite the conditions. As one of the more educated residents, Hector Dixon finds himself wearing many hats in Bliss, as a farmer, the integrated school’s teacher, the justice of the peace, and eventually a milk road delivery man, all to support his growing and tenacious family. Striving to find a balance between the life his children dream of and the one he has worked so hard to build.

He took a lingering gaze over the peaceful countryside, thinking of how transient were the human inhabitants of this land, and how triumphantly enduring was the land itself

Dennis Vossberg

Hector’s Bliss is a moving historical fiction crafted with love and respect for the subjects, and Book Club Groups will find value in learning about this little-known Nebraska history. They may even be encouraged to learn more. Covered in the Nebraska Public Media story, “Looking for Bliss,” the story of the Dixons and Bliss is virtually unknown. Hector’s Bliss brings to light Black history that has been erased from cultural memory, revealing a more full and beautiful world. We won’t really ever know how the Black Homesteaders were treated by their white compatriots as those details have been lost to time. So, while prejudice and racism are addressed, Vossberg chooses to focus the limited peril on the indomitable human spirit and the life these people worked to build after slavery. 

If you’re interested in requesting Hector’s Bliss for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 4 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Vossberg, Dennis. Hector’s Bliss. Morris Publishing. 2006

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Book Club Spotlight – When Stars are Scattered

Cover for When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed. Two young Somali boys walk together, shoeless, through a encampment. They are smiling hopefully up at the night sky.

Happy Black History Month from Book Club Spotlight! The theme for 2024 is “African Americans and the Arts,” which honors the incredible contributions of African Americans to culture, music, art, and literature. And what better combination of art and literature is there than graphic novels? So, to wrap up our mini-series, we will follow young Somali refugees displaced by civil war. Where the Stars are Scattered, by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, is based on the childhood of Mohamed, who grew up in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. The list of honors for this book is massive, including being a National Book Award Finalist, the School Library Journal Best Book of 2020, and a 2021-22 Golden Sower Chapter Book Nominee.

Omar and his brother Hassan have been in the Dadaab refugee camp for seven years! Without their parents, the boys live on their own, watched over by an aging foster mother, Fatuma. Having the responsibility of caring for himself and his nonverbal brother, everyday Omar must clean the floorless tent they sleep on, hide any valuables from thieves, and wait. Wait for water, wait for food, wait for his mother to find them, wait for the war to end, and wait to leave the refugee camp. When Omar gets a chance to attend school, he is far behind other children his age, and soon, the pressure of school and chores begins to make him angry and resentful. As he grows and becomes continually frustrated with his situation, he sees how everyone else is stuck just like him—especially the girls, who, like Omar, are burdened with too many responsibilities. With encouragement from his friends and community, Omar grows more confident in his abilities and in Hassan and starts dreaming about a future outside the camp. And one day, Omar’s and Hassan’s names are called for an interview with the UN for a chance to finally leave Dadaab, an exciting and terrifying possibility. 

“It was nice talking like this. Pretending we were normal kids, with normal futures to look forward too”

– Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed

Written for middle grades and up, all will be deeply moved by reading this graphic novel. With wars waging worldwide, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed and powerless, and listening to stories of those going through these tough times matters. When Stars are Scattered is an excellent representation of the day-to-day life in refugee camps. Maybe your Book Club Group wants to learn more about what life is like for refugees, or your students have questions about what is happening to displaced children like them. Since moving to America, Mohamed has dedicated his life to serving his community back in Dadaab and improving the living conditions of refugees, especially young girls through his nonprofit foundation, Refugee Strong.

“Please take away from the reading of this book an understanding that you should never give up hope. In the camp, we were given courage by our faith to always be patient and to never lose hope. Things may seem impossible, but if you keep working hard and believe in yourself, you can overcome anything in your path. I hope my story will inspire you to always persevere.” 

Omar Mohamed

If you’re interested in requesting When Stars are Scattered for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

To see more of our Black Voices book club titles, visit here.

Jamieson, Victoria & Mohamed, Omar. When Stars are Scattered. Penguin Random House. 2020

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Book Club Spotlight – Survivors of the Holocaust

Cover for Survivors of the Holocaust

In observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, today’s Book Club Spotlight, Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children, is a graphic novel that commemorates the Jewish children who were displaced by World War Two. This book will be read in conjunction with next month’s spotlight, When Stars are Scattered, which follows two Somali brothers as they are growing up in a Kenyan refugee camp. While these children all survived, it’s important to remember those who are still being displaced or, worse, by war and apartheid. Survivors of the Holocaust is adapted from a six-part animated interview series, Children of the Holocaust, which won the VLA Graphic Novel Diversity Award for Youth Honor. It was edited by Kath Shackleton and illustrated by Zane Whittingham. 

The graphic novel begins with a foreword by Lilian Black, who was the Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association. She introduces us to the six storytellers, Heinz, Trude, Ruth, Martin, Suzanne, and Arek, who were all children at the beginning of World War II and were impacted by the Holocaust and its systemic persecution of Jewish people. Split into individual sections, we begin by meeting each child shortly before war breaks out during Hitler’s rise to power. Some are forced to flee with their families, siblings, or all alone. Others are stuck in Germany and manage to survive their time in concentration camps. Their stories are told through evocative and mildly disturbing illustrations that work to bring the sense of terror that Hilter’s reign imposed on their young lives. Sections following the main stories include short paragraphs about each of the children as they grew up outside of the war, a timeline of events, a helpful glossary of terms, and further online resources.

“It is not easy for them to tell their stories. They agreed to because they want people to know what can happen when people are subjected to discrimination and persecution for being seen as “different”. Their dearest wish is that no one should suffer as they did and that people who never again stand by when injustice is taking place.”

Survivors of the holocaust – Foreword: Lilian Black

Appropriate for ages ten and above, Survivors of the Holocaust presents a solid reference point for young readers who are just learning about the Holocaust. As written by The Jewish Book Council: “These accounts rep­re­sent a good cross-sec­tion of expe­ri­ence, since plu­ral­i­ty of expe­ri­ence is vital in pre­sent­ing the Holo­caust to young read­ers. The illus­tra­tions make the iden­ti­ties of the vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors clear and the maps used as back­grounds pro­vide geo­graph­ic ground­ing for bor­der cross­ings. Ren­der­ings of pho­tographs and pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments add anoth­er lay­er of under­stand­ing”. However, there are minor inconsistencies that often occur through retellings. From classrooms to adult reading groups, Survivors of the Holocaust presents a multifaceted approach to our continuing Holocaust education and commitment to victims of displacement.

As with many of our Book Club Kits, discussion questions and an Educator’s Guide are available to help teachers and Book Club Group leaders through discussion resources and additional information. 

Other Resources: 

If you’re interested in requesting Survivors of the Holocaust  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Shackleton, Kath. Survivors of the Holocaust. Sourcebooks Explore. 2019.

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Book Club Spotlight – Transcendent Kingdom

cover for Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.  a Black woman faces away from the viewer, her hands and posture in a praying pose. the cover is cut in half slant-ways between black and a pale pink

Reading all the books I feature in the spotlight puts me in a perpetual time crunch of my own making. However, that was not a problem as I read today’s Book Club Spotlight in one day because it was so incredible. Transcendent Kingdom is Yaa Gyasi’s sophomore novel following the success of her debut, Homegoing. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gyasi has won the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the American Book Award for Homegoing, and she was featured not only on the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 list but also the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, Gyasi proves in her novels that the immigrant story is not a monolith, and in Transcendent Kingdom, she tackles the great costs of depression and addiction.

Gifty, a neuroscience doctoral student, is studying the reward-seeking behavior in mice, especially as it relates to depression and addiction. Once the mice are hooked on Ensure, she looks for the lengths addicted mice will go to reach their reward and how to dissuade that neurological impulse. While she tries to keep it a secret from her peers, Gifty has a deep connection with addiction and depression. Her older brother, Nana, lost to opiate addiction. And her mother, torn apart by grief, is sleeping in her daughter’s bed. Gifty’s parents moved to the United States from Ghana when Nana was young, only for her father to leave them for the homeland when she was very young. Left to fend for themselves all alone, the family never quite recovered. And Gifty, fueled by ambition focused on nothing but proving herself over and over again. If she was the best, if she did the hardest thing, she’d have a place to rest. Reconciling with the past as a means to her future, Gifty spends her energy trying to understand the problem that tore her family apart while keeping what’s left of it together. 

I want everything and I want to want less.”

Yaa Gyasi

Focusing on Gifty’s relationship with her family as it transforms and her time in her “motherland” of Ghana, Transcendent Kingdom, is not plot-driven but purpose-driven. To know the story is to understand Gifty and all the little disjointed areas of her life that came together to make her whole. There is no magical solution to her problems, only a continued forward motion. An integral part of Transcendent Kingdom is the struggle between the spiritual and the scientific mind- knowing deep in ourselves that if we can figure out the mechanics of why something happens or why this person is who they are, we can fully understand them and be at peace. Recovering from her anxious evangelical upbringing, Gifty ran to science and only science. But as her questions get more complex and philosophical, she finds herself tentatively reaching out to something more. 

January is Mental Health Awareness Month: 

  • If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.
  • To learn how to get support for mental health, drug, and alcohol issues, visit FindSupport.gov.
  • To locate treatment facilities or providers, visit FindTreatment.gov or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).

If you’re interested in requesting Transcendent Kingdom  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Gyasi, Yaa. Transcendent Kingdom. Vintage Books. 2020.

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Book Club Spotlight – A Salty Piece of Land

Cover for A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffett. A white and red striped light house stands on an empty beach surrounded by crystal blue water

This December 25th, we celebrated the birth of the late great legend, Mr. Jimmy Buffett. The Margaritaville singer-songwriter known for his island lifestyle and escapism passed away this last year on September 1st. So, to celebrate a true icon, we are spotlighting one of his many fiction books: A Salty Piece of Land. Which picks up from Buffett’s short story “Take Another Road” featured in the Tales From Margaritaville collection. A Salty Piece of Land even has its own single to accompany your island-time reading relaxation. 

When we meet up with cowboy Tully Mars and his trusty steed, Mr. Twain, as they are on the run from a vindictive poodle ranch owner. The pair hightail it out of the mainland and end up on a shrimp boat headed for the Caribbean. Driftless, and surrounded by the cool, pink sands of Cayo Loco, Tully meets old sea captain Cleopatra Highbourne, who has quite the proposal for him: Fix up the abandoned lighthouse and escape everything he is running from. 

“Life is unpredictable, but there is a lot out there to do and see if you just tune in to the radio.”

Jimmy Buffet 

Interspersed with beautiful Caribbean vistas and colorful characters, A Salty Piece of Land is as chill as Buffett’s music. The characters Tully encounters are as varied and strange as their names but are just as heartfelt and dear. Sprinkled with Buffett’s knowledge of the sea, navigation, and lighthouses, A Salty Piece of Land is escapist literature at its finest. Adult Book Clubs and Parrotheads will enjoy the familiar vibes of Buffett’s prose and that never-ending chase for freedom, eternal youth, and sunshine. 

Fins up!

If you’re interested in requesting A Salty Piece of Land  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 8 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Buffet, Jimmy. A Salty Piece of Land. Back Bay Books. 2005.

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Book Club Spotlight – Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Mount Everest against a clear blue sky

It’s hard to feel fully in the holiday spirit when it’s supposed to be 52 degrees and raining on Christmas Day- so to get us in the “Let it Snow” mood, let’s visit a place where the weather is genuinely “frightful”. Standing at the China-Nepal border, at a ridiculous height of 29,031 feet 8 ½ inches, Mount Everest reaches airplane cruising height and skims into the stratosphere. Most of the year, monsoon winds and far below-freezing temperatures blast the peak, and with only about 33% of the oxygen level you’d find at sea level, it sounds like a reasonable place to visit! And one such visitor, journalist and mountaineer Jon Krakauer (author of Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven), ended up smack dab in one of the definitive tales from Mount Everest. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster is Krakauer’s first-hand account of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster that would claim 8 lives before the night was through, the highest death count in a single day (at the time)

Lauded and controversial, Into Thin Air follows Krakauer as he joins the ill-fated 1996 Everest Expedition on behalf of Outside Magazine. As a journalist, his mission was to report from basecamp on the growing commercialization and traffic on Mount Everest, its toll on the Sherpa people and the environment, and the mountain’s unimaginable death rate. But as a mountaineer, the thrall of the peak was too strong, and he convinced his editor to let him make a push for the top. Joining an expedition team led by veteran climber Rob Hall, Krakauer notes due to the technical ease of the climb and the tireless (and thankless) work from the Sherpa guides, the over-commercialized ascent at times felt more like “paying someone to climb for me.” After summiting, Krakauer is waylaid on his descent, stuck in a traffic jam of climbers as they make their way to the top, far past the regarded safe time slot. As his descent continues, tragedy strikes. Small mistakes add up, while the egotism and greed of the expedition leaders and climbers lead to horrifying ends as a blizzard encapsulates Everest, trapping the enthusiasts and Sherpas in the Death Zone. Remember, reaching the summit is only half the journey.

“There were many, many fine reasons not to go, but attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.”

Jon Krakauer 

Despite its great expense (anywhere from $30k – $60k) and the very real possibility of death- the mesmerizing top of the world worms its way into the minds of everyone from skilled climbers to middle managers who want a taste of beating the nearly impossible odds. Into Thin Air is breathtaking in that it even exists; very few people from Krakauer’s team survived, and he is lucky to be one of them. I find Mount Everest to be endlessly fascinating, and what is it about the human condition that drives people to climb it not for the sake of discovery or exploration- but for personal gain? Appropriate for Book Club Groups, Adults and Young Adults alike who don’t mind peril, Into Thin Air, and the enormity of Mount Everest can provide endless discussions into ethics and morality. What happens to a marvel of Earth and human achievement when it too falls to overconsumption and exploitation?

Excerpt from the article: Everest a Year Later: False Summit (May, 1997)

Krakauer: I don’t know why this tragedy has grabbed people with such force and won’t let go. Part of it’s the Everest mystique and part of it’s the absurdity and even perversity of people spending this kind of money chasing this kind of goal, throwing prudence and common sense to the wind. But in the final analysis I really don’t get it. I’m a victim and a beneficiary of it all at the same time. Everest has turned my life upside down. Nothing will ever be the same. Why did I end up climbing the mountain on that particular day, with those particular people? Why did I survive while others died? Why has this story become a source of fascination to so many people who ordinarily would have no interest in mountain climbing whatsoever?

I guess maybe we should think of Everest not as a mountain, but as the geologic embodiment of myth. And when you try to climb a chunk of myth – as I discovered to my lasting regret- you shouldn’t be too surprised when you wind up with a lot more than you bargained for. 

Further Readings: 

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston Dewalt

  • Another account of The 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster a critical response to Into Thin Air

To Watch:

Everest- IMAX Film (1998) (Free on Vimeo)

  • IMAX movie, filmed during the events of the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster. Narrated by Liam Neeson. 

Dark Side of Everest (Free with ads or a lower quality is available on YouTube)

  • Follows the fated South African expedition that survived the 1996 Mt. Everest Disaster, and their push on the summit shortly after

Death Zone (Free with ads)

  • “The dramatic self-documented story of 20 elite Nepali climbers who venture into the ‘Death Zone’ of Mount Everest to restore their sacred mountain and the contaminated water source of 1.3 billion people.” Narrated by Patrick Stewart

If you’re interested in requesting Into Thin Air for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 17 copies and 1 Large Print available. (A librarian must request items)

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. Anchor. 1997.

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Book Club Spotlight – Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Cover for Tell the Wolves I'm Home. An ornate teapot against a green background.

This year’s theme for the 35th Annual World AIDS Day was Remember and Commit, which “pays tribute to those we have lost to HIV/AIDS and emphasizes our collective responsibility to act to end the HIV epidemic.”

Today’s Book Club Spotlight, focuses on Remembering, by taking us to what could be considered the epicenter of the early AIDS crisis- 1987 New York City. Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home was named “One of the Best Books of the Year” by The Wall Street Journal, and also has the distinction of winning the Alex Award in 2013. The Alex Award is presented by the Young Adult Library Services Association to adult novels that have a special appeal to young adults. Spotlight alumnus I’m Glad My Mom Died has also received this award.

Just north of New York City, June Elbus, a romantic at heart, often disappears into the woods after school to pretend she is living in the Middle Ages, wearing medieval boots specially bought by her beloved uncle and famous artist Finn Weiss. June knows Finn is gay; everyone does. But after his death from AIDS, she learns he also had a partner, Toby—the man who is blamed for Finn’s death. In the months that follow, June is torn between jealousy, love and fear, as she forges an unlikely (and secret) friendship with Toby. Reconciling how much of her uncle she really knew until the lines between Toby and Finn begin to blur until she can’t see where one ends and the other begins. All the whileJune’s older sister, Greta, slowly loses herself amid attempts to reconcile their strained relationship. But the secrets between the two sisters are overwhelming and become too much for them to overcome on their own. Not until they start to talk through Finn’s final painting. 

“Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me.”

Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I’m Home revels in the language of art, which often goes hand in hand with the Queer experience, and especially the HIV/AIDS Crisis. From Finn and June’s bonding over Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, to Greta starring in the school’s production of South Pacific. The novel uses art and and illness to focus on the absurdity and fear surrounding prejudices and danger they can put people in. Taking place only a few years after the first case of HIV/AIDS was reported, not much is known about the disease, and public panic and demonization of suffering gay men was at an all-time high. Brunt spends a large portion of her book delving into this fear and the vice it had on the public conscience. June’s family loves Finn, but fear turns them to avoiding him, even as they can see him deteriorating before their eyes. Especially for readers who have memories from or connections to the initial HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a great novel for adult Book Club Groups (or mature teens) to discuss prejudices and how they hold up to a modern lens. 

 And for a fitting multimedia experience, I recommend:  

Art

Music:

If you’re interested in requesting Tell the Wolves I’m Home for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies and 1 Large Print available. (A librarian must request items)

Brunt, Carol Rifka. Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Dial Press. 2012.

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Book Club Spotlight – Rising Voices

Cover of Rising Voices: Writing of Young Native Americans. A triangle pattern adorns the cover, bringing to mind a quilt

With Thanksgiving finally here, I was pulled toward a recent donation in our collection that I found to be a fantastic and thought-provoking read for closing out Native American Heritage Month. Curated by Arlene Hirschfelder and Beverly R. Singer, Rising Voices: Writings of Young Native Americans is a collection of essays, poems, and stories from the late 1880s to the early 1990s. Hirschfelder speaks of the young authors featured in the collection: “their words bear vivid, often eloquent witness to the realities of their lives over the past hundred years. They have much to tell us”. 

Separated into the categories of Identity, Family, Homelands, Ritual and Ceremony, Education, and Harsh Realities. Each section includes writings that exemplify a part of the youth’s life. From gorgeous descriptions of mesas to warm and comforting home lives, there is also the truth of the hardships and poverty Native Americans were forced into, and many still live in today. The young writers’ strong sense of awareness and personal values ring throughout the collection, especially as we move into modern times.

The Bighorn River flows
through the reservation.
As it goes, it meets the 
Little Bighorn. They are like 
a big brother and a little
brother together.

The sound of it makes
the reservation special.
It seems as if it protects
the reservation with happiness 
And care. The reservation 
knows it has a close friend
and that’s the river.

The river wants to flow
to all the four winds but
knows it can just flow one way 
with the same wind. 

The Bighorn River – Len Plenty, 1988

Rising Voices is a beautiful and unique collection that spans multiple viewpoints and lives of young Native Americans throughout the last century. Readers are treated to breathtaking poetry and heart-wrenching essays that stick with you long after. This collection includes work from elementary schoolers to graduating seniors, making this the perfect selection for any aged Book Club Group. There is a wealth of continued reading and discussions to be had, especially on the different backgrounds and viewpoints of each author. Some have a deep sense of self and justice, while others bask in the love from their families. My favorite reading, If I Were a Pony, is a collaborative poem by Navajo children where the speaker wishes they were a pinto pony so they could run away to live a carefree life out on the mesa. It is a good exercise to delve into what the author’s were feeling, and what purpose does each excerpt serve in this wider narrative created by Hirschfelder and Singer.

For a further example of discussion topics, one particular section that stood out to me was Education—pieces included covered topics from US Indian Boarding Schools that worked to assimilate Native American youth from their culture to more modern school efforts to reintroduce students to what has been lost. 

Carlisle Indian School, whose mission was to “Kill the Indian, save the Man,” often published propagandist essays and stories from their students as a way to fundraise and maintain a good social image. One essay titled Opportunity, written by Alvis M. Morrin in 1914, extols the virtue of the off-reservation school. He speaks on famous Native Americans, such as former Vice President Charles Curtis, and shows his reverence towards the perceived landscape of progress while still maintaining his heritage: 

“Our lot is easier than theirs [our forefathers], for race prejudice has been overcome, and a beneficent Government is giving the Indian youth the opportunities which once belonged only to the white man. Open doors to any vocation are waiting for the Indian to enter.”

In stark contrast, a more modern excerpt included from 1996 when Holy Rosary High School in South Dakota introduced a new course called Modern Indian Psychology in an effort to teach their young Lakota students the importance of their history and the cultural values of their people. In Something Really Different, students reported feeling a sense of belonging and pride they had never had before, highlighting the importance that young Native Americans continue to learn about their history.

“Before this course, we didn’t even know that Indians were important or that it was important for us to know Indian history and values.” – Patrick Kills Crow and Mary Crazy Thunder 

 “Now I am glad I am an Indian. Before I was ashamed of it.” – Francis Clifford

How are these student’s voices being used? And are they being promoted for their benefit or someone else’s? And what purpose do they serve in the anthology?

If you’re interested in requesting Rising Voices for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 7 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

To see more of our Native American Voices book club titles, visit the link here.

Hirschfelder, Arlene & Singer, Beverly. Rising Voices. HarperPerennial. 1996.

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Book Club Spotlight – Tales of Burning Love

Cover of Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich. A woman dressed in red lays seductively on a bed, her hand resting against her cheek. Her face is obscured by a blue rabbit mask

Today’s Book Club Spotlight is a title from prolific Ojibwe (Chippewa)/ German-American author Louise Erdrich! And I can’t think of a better author to start off Native American Heritage Month with. A Pulitzer Prize Winner, Erdrich was one of the first women admitted to Dartmouth College, later becoming the writer in residence for their Native American Studies Program. Today’s title, Tales of Burning Love, is the 5th in her series Love Medicine, following a community in and around a fictional Ojibwe reservation. 

We are introduced to Jack Mauser on the day he met, married, and lost his first wife. Now, years later, his four other ex-wives gather together after tragedy and find themselves retracing the steps of their predecessor. Dot, the last wife; Candice, the young mother; Marlis, the dentist; and Eleanor, the only one who still loves him. All four women, unable to cut themselves entirely from Mauser, were taken in at one point or another by his earnest but selfish ways. Stuck in Jack’s car during a blizzard, they recall their relationships with the man as wild and passionate as the storm outside. 

“Love is brutalizing, a raw force, frail as blossoms, tough as a catgut wire.”

Louise Erdrich

Tales of Burning Love is about more than just blind, passionate love. It follows the trauma of loss, ruinous devotion, and religious ecstasy. The stories the wives tell intermingle and blow with the raging storm outside. While Jack Mauser may be at the center of each story, his involvement, and true nature shape and lead the women far beyond his reach. Their hopes and aspirations start or end at his feet. For Adult Book Club Groups looking for stories to curl up with as the weather gets colder, Erdrich’s prose and darkly humorous storytelling are enough to keep you burning through any storm.

This is Erdrich’s second time featured in the Spotlight, the other being her children’s book The Birchbark House, following the day-to-day life of young Omakayas in 1847.

If you’re interested in requesting Tales of Burning Love for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Erdrich, Louise. Tales of Burning Love. HarperPerennial. 1996.

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Book Club Spotlight – Dead as a Door Knocker

Cover of Dead as a Door Knocker by Diane Kelly. An ajar door opens into a house under construction, with a sandy-colored cat sitting on a work bench next to a hammer. An ornate teal skull served as the house's door knocker.

With Halloween a week away, I love to enjoy the spookier books in our collection. But what’s great about Halloween is that there are so many ways for readers to enjoy the season without getting too scared. So, for the scaredy cats this Halloween Season, we’ll be looking at Dead as a Door Knocker by author Diane Kelly. Kelly is a prolific, cozy mystery writer, having (accidentally) worked with white-collar criminals in her former work as a tax advisor and decided to author the criminals herself rather than working with them. She has been awarded the Golden Heart Award from the Romance Writers of America and a Reviewers’ Choice Award.

In the first installment in the House-Flipper Mystery series, we meet 20-something Whitney Whitaker, a property manager living in her parents’ (renovated) pool house with big dreams and a small cat named Sawdust. When a property goes up for sale by the cheapskate Rick Dunaway, Whitney snatches up the deal, thinking it was too good to be true. But she gets more than she bargained for when Rick’s body shows up in her flower bed a few days later! With the help of her best friend Collette, cousin Buck, and Nashville’s newest homicide detective, Collin Flynn, Whitney sets out to catch the killer with her life and the house’s market value on the line.

“Are you going to buy the murder house?”

Diane Kelly

With brief mentions of blood, peril, and, of course, a body, Dead as a Door Knocker is driven by its characters and their relationships, not a murderous fiend. As we tick through the list of potential suspects, there are plenty of stops along the way into the world of house-flipping, rentals, and kitty shenanigans. Cozy mysteries like Dead as a Door Knocker let the more squeamish in your book club groups enjoy the fun of solving a good mystery without all the blood and gore getting in the way.

If you’re interested in requesting Dead as a Door Knocker for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Kelly, Diane. Dead as a Door Knocker. St. Martin’s Press. 2019

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Book Club Spotlight – How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

cover for How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. 
Four different colored hummingbirds fly around a flower in a glass vase

In 1960, ten-year-old Julia Alvarez left her home in the Dominican Republic for the United States, and by 2013, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Obama and had an honorary doctorate from Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. So, to end Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re Spotlighting Alvarez’s debut book, which has been widely studied and lauded as a hallmark in Latino Literature. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents is an episodic novel that encapsulates the Dominican immigrant identity in the United States and their struggles of assimilation, heritage, and identity.

When Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sofía were children, their family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic to escape the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. But that was 30 years ago, and now the sisters who are “too American” for their parents find themselves lost in an identity they never had the chance to form. As the narrative progresses (or regresses), short vignettes of each sister encapsulating their lives move backward in time toward their beginnings in the Dominican Republic. They struggle to cope with the distinct differences in women’s liberation and expectations between their two homes. In the United States, they are expected by their peers to be free-spirited, educated, and beautiful. At the same time, their visits back home are shadowed by the traditional values of Catholicism, a patriarchal society, and their own set of beauty standards. Torn between being acceptable in each culture but still their own people, each member of the family faces immense pressure and collapse. Their mother dreams of becoming an inventor, and their father struggles with sudden poverty; Sandra becomes weighed down by the impossibilities of beauty and stress, while Yolanda, a struggling writer, is caught between her cultures of liberation, joy, and failure. Even 30 years after immigrating, each of the four sisters tries their best to live up to unreachable standards and criticism but never quite feels whole, as if some part of themselves was left back in the Dominican Republic, where they were pushed too soon from their nest. 

 They will be haunted by what they do and don’t remember. 

Julia Alvarez 

Told using a reverse timeline, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents keeps the reader in a sense of hesitation and disarray as we are pulled further back into the sisters’ own discordant existence between cultures. Their story is complex and reflects the natural uncertainties and confusion of being out of one’s space and into a new and unknown environment. Perfect for reading groups of mature Young Adult readers and above, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents opens itself up to deep and possibly intense discussions of the self. The stories explore the Female experience as much as it explores the Immigrant one, as a perfect study of Intersectionality (a type of analysis coined by feminist scholar and American Civil Rights leader Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw). Exploring how every aspect of our identities is shaped by the other, or as Alvarez puts it in her Authors Note: “There is nothing shameful in being a complex human being.”

Last week (October 1-7) was Banned Books Week– and Julia Alvarez is no stranger to censorship. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has had its fair share of challenges and bans- even being banned from the whole of Johnston County, NC, including classrooms and school libraries. During that time, Alvarez spoke with the National Coalition Against Censorship about her experience.

Here is a small excerpt: 

NCAC: How does removing a book from a school district affect students’ educational experience?

Julia Alvarez: The sad thing about the controversy, over and above the fact that students have missed out on the reading experience of that book, is what this models for them about an experience that is difficult or upsetting.  I grew up in a dictatorship, where you couldn’t talk about difficult situations – there was this culture of silence.  We would run into a problem and have no one to talk to.  What’s modeled there by banning the book is what I find most upsetting: that it is appropriate behavior in a free country when someone is expressing something we don’t want to hear, to silence them.

NCAC: Why do you think it is important to teach literature that some might deem controversial or difficult?

Julia Alvarez: Schools provide safe spaces to talk about controversial issues, and literature presents characters portraying human experience in all its richness and contradictoriness. Reading is a way to take in the difficult situations and understand them.  The whole point of reading a book in class is to have discussion about what these situations are like.  You have writing, discussion, and classroom exercises on it, and kids come out of it having digested the experience with ways to feel and talk about it.  How wonderful! 

If you’re interested in requesting How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books. 1991

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Book Club Spotlight – The Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist

Cover for The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle. A hand raised with a black bird perched on the middle finger. Palm trees and hills line the background

Hispanic Heritage Month is from September 15th to October 15th, and to celebrate, we are Spotlighting The Lightning Dreamer, written by Margarita Engle, the first Latino awarded the Newbery Honor and the Poetry Foundation’s sixth Young People’s Poet Laureate.

A Golden Sower nominee, The Lightning Dreamer also has the unique distinction of being awarded the Pura Belpré honor, an award presented to a Latino/Latina writer who “best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” Inspired by Engle’s Cuban heritage, this title is a historical fiction novel written in verse, following one of the country’s most prominent female writers, feminists, and abolitionists- Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, known here, as Tula.

Slavery was a way of life in nineteenth-century Cuba, and for young Tula, she believes that her future in an arranged marriage would be a similar kind of endless servitude. Cuban women were expected to be quiet and listen to the men rather than think for themselves—something Tula did a lot. And when she begins to read the banned works of abolitionist poet José María Heredia, her ideas grow restless and revolutionary. Breaking from expectations, Tula starts to write plays for the local orphanage, and her open views on abolition inspire her family’s cook to flee from the looming threat of enslavement. But her bold actions are belittled and mocked by her mother and others, and Tula is sent away from home after refusing an arranged marriage. At her grandfather’s estate, she falls in love with a former slave named Sab, who is desperately in love with another girl who will not have him because of his dark skin. His story moves Tula deeply, and as we follow her throughout the years, she becomes more confident and outspoken with her abolitionist and feminist poetry, even though the very act could put her in jail- or worse.

“I’m tired of being told
that my feelings are too wild.”

margarita engle

Written for readers in middle grades and up, The Lightning Dreamer serves as an introduction to Avellaneda (Tula) and other great abolitionist Latino poets such as José María Heredia and Jose Marti (a particular inspiration to Engle) and includes short bios and excerpts from Avellaneda and Heredia to tie the reader into the real-life story. While Engle’s depiction of Avellaneda meeting Sab is wholly fictional, the story is not. Avellaneda’s first and most controversial novel, Sab, about an enslaved Cuban boy in love with his master’s daughter, explores the humanity and ethics of Sab against the amoral white characters, a stance unheard of at the time. The novel was banned from her home country of Cuba because of the interracial love story, its critique of marriage, and its criticism of societal norms. While published a decade before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the two share similar backgrounds and critical receptions when read today. Like many of Engle’s novels, The Lightning Dreamer centers around young people who choose hope in hopeless situations, which many may experience today. And Avellaneda put herself at considerable risk to publish Sab and bring hope to her home.

If you’re interested in requesting The Lightning Dreamer for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 8 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Engle, Margarita. The Lightning Dreamer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2013

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Book Club Spotlight – The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut 

Cover for The Ordinary Spaceman by Clayton C. Anderson.
Anderson, a white man in a training space suit solemnly salutes the camera.

Four years after what would be his final voyage into space, retired astronaut Clayton Anderson of Ashland, Nebraska, released his tell-all memoir of his 30 years at NASA, comprising 167 days living in space, working on the International Space Station and performing nearly 40 hours of spacewalks. Now, when I say this is a “tell-all” memoir, I don’t mean it in a way to dramatize or bring to mind a TMZ article. I mean it literally. Because today, our Book Club Spotlight The Ordinary Spaceman, is genuinely one of the most unflinchingly honest, funny, and candid stories about what it takes to be a NASA astronaut. Anderson’s insistence on being “an ordinary guy” might feel strange when reading a book by someone who has been to space, but it’s also his wholehearted truth. 

Clayton and his mother have different ideas about when he decided to be an astronaut. He argues it started with watching the Apollo 8 mission at the age of nine, and his mom, however insists the dream was always apart of him. A proud and true Nebraskan, Clayton made his way to Texas, working at NASA as an engineer, and eventually leading the development effort for the ISS’s Caution and Warning System, all the while continuing to pursue his dream of spaceflight. Clayton applied to the astronaut program 15 times before finally being selected, and that was only the beginning. From recalling his first time breaking the sound barrier, freezing during survival training in the Russian wilderness, needing stiches while working in an undersea lab, and tragically witnessing the Columbia disaster alongside the crew’s families, Anderson is incredibly open and humble about his experiences during his time in and out of space, even when he finds himself in the wrong. Through stories of incredible isolation and excitement, frustration, and an ever-evolving sense of respect for others,, Anderson doesn’t hide his emotions in his writing, and takes us through his personal growth as a man, an astronaut, and in his faith. All while mixed in with a healthy dose of humor and sincerity that brings the reader close and holds tight until the very end.

“Performing a spacewalk outside the space station is not much different from going outside in a Nebraska winter. The space environment is just as brutal as those I encountered as a kid … okay, maybe a little bit worse.” 

Clayton Anderson

Though a new addition to our Book Club Collection, The Ordinary Spaceman was awarded the Nebraska Book Award in 2016 for Creative Non-fiction, and after having lived in Texas 30 years, his home state is still very much a part of his identity, and it is clear how proud he to represent Nebraska as its first astronaut. From shaping his personality to his love of all things huskers, any Nebraska reader will feel at home reading his words and shaking their head at his (sometimes) crass humor, wondering if they have what it takes to go to space. 

Anderson at the 2008 LPS-Pfizer Science Fair. (image: Lincoln Journal Star)

To this day, Anderson is a passionate STEM advocate and NASA Ambassador, and recently in 2022 he became the President and CEO of The SAC Museum in his own hometown. For him, being an astronaut is just as much about being a role model as it is about flying in the stars. Because of him, for the majority of my life, there has always been a Nebraskan Astronaut. Looking back on it now, I wonder how many opportunities were provided to me and my peers because of Anderson’s perseverance as a role model and science educator, especially to the kids of Nebraska. I even had the opportunity to meet Anderson when he was a guest speaker at the LPS-Pfizer Science Fair in 2008. Fresh off his 5-month tour on the ISS, Anderson was a pretty big name, even for us ambivalent 5th graders. I still remember seeing his big grin as he looked over the crowd of us youngsters in our science fair t-shirts and thinking about how strange it was that astronauts were just ordinary people like us. And now I know he felt the same!

The Ordinary Spaceman is one of four books by Anderson. He has written two children’s books: Letters from Space and A is for Astronaut, and a YA book: It’s A Question of Space. 

“This journey is not just about technical achievements; it is about people. It is about our planet; it is about the future of the entire human race. What began from an era of competition, fueled by the launch of Sputnik forty years ago, has now become the ultimate challenge of cooperation and teamwork. This is what we owe our children and all future generations. I want to help “line the way”!”

– Anderson 1998

If you’re interested in requesting The Ordinary Spaceman  for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 10 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Anderson, Clayton. The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut. University of Nebraska Press. 2015

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Book Club Spotlight – Crying in H Mart

Cover for Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Two pairs of chopsticks hold intertwined noodles that drape down in the middle

Today, we are looking at another memoir of a woman who is grieving the loss of her mother. But unlike our last Spotlight, I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy, Michelle Zauner’s relationship with her mother was tender and precocious despite their differences. Her memoir, Crying in H Mart, having spent 55 weeks on the New York Times’s bestseller list, is Zauner’s story of returning to her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, to be by her mother’s side as she succumbs to cancer. Her loss inspired Zauner’s debut studio album, Psychopomp. The album was highly praised, and since then, Zauner has reached commercial success, being named one of Time Magazine’s most influential innovators in 2022. 

Michelle was always told that 25 would be an important year for her. After all, it is when her mother, Chongmi, met and married Michelle’s father, an American living in Korea for work. For Michelle, 25 was the year cancer slowly took her mother’s life. As a first-generation Korean-American, Michelle did not have the easiest time growing up. Between facing racism from her peers and pressure from her mother to be the perfect daughter, Michelle poured her heart into creative passions like music and writing. When Chongmi was diagnosed with cancer, Michelle was in a creative and financial rut. Her band at the time wasn’t reaching much success, and her day jobs consisted of whatever part-time gigs she could manage. So when the diagnosis came, she dropped everything to attend to her ailing mother, hoping to repair the bond between them and repay her for the unending love and care she didn’t cherish when she was younger. Throughout the memoir, Zauner attempts to nourish her and her mother’s relationship while nourishing their bodies through learning to cook Korean food.

“The lessons she imparted, the proof of her life lived on in me and in every move and deed. I was what she left behind. If I could not be with my mother, I would be her.”

Michelle Zauner
Cover for the album Psychopomp by Japanese Breakfast. Two young Korean women in white coats look down at a camera on a windy day. The woman on the left, Chongmi, is reaching out toward the camera
“괜찮아, 괜찮아
It’s okay, sweetheart
Don’t cry, honey
I love you”
-Psychopomp

Crying in H Mart explores the bonds between food, culture, and family. While a strict parent, Zauner’s mother expressed her love in subtle ways, such as preparing traditional meals. Having found comfort and safety in these meals, Zauner learns to cook them for her mother as a quiet way to repay her for the life she was given. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, her mother was Zauner’s only connection to her Korean side, so she finds herself inexplicably lost when she realizes there is no one left to help keep this half of herself alive. She contemplates how children of immigrants often feel a need to become Americanized to fit in, which leads to polarization or loss of the cultural heritage that their parents represent.

It’s not often that a book comes with a built-in soundtrack, and I highly recommend listening to Psychopomp for a whole reading experience. The album, named after entities that are said to shepherd souls to the afterlife, revolves around Zauner’s mother and her final days, featuring Chongmi on the album cover and her voice in the title song comforting Michelle. This multimedia experience is an excellent way for Book Club Groups to delve into the different ways we grieve, our interpersonal relationships, and how creativity and beauty can blossom from pain.

If you’re interested in requesting Crying in H Mart for your book club, you can find the Request Form here. There are 5 copies available. (A librarian must request items)

Zauner, Michelle. Crying in H Mart. Vintage Books. 2021.

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