Book – It’s the fundamental question of the biological and social sciences — why do humans do the things they do? Every discipline has its own answers, from the complex chemical interactions of neurobiology to the deep history of evolution. In Behave, Sapolsky pulls together all of these and more to explore the causes and meanings of human behavior, with an eye toward the most important question of all: How can we be better people?
This book is long, hard going, but it’s well worth it – it’s one of the only books on neuroscience I’ve ever read where the author doesn’t treat the core biological mechanics of neurochemicals and genes as though that provides a meaningful answer to any question. Rather, Sapolsky goes into detail about the interaction between genes, hormones, biochemistry, environment, and long-lasting biological change, making it clear that while there’s a biological explanation for everything, there are so many variables involved that saying we can identify a single source of any given human behavior is laughable at best. The book really gets good in the second half, when he starts to apply all this to the things we’re really concerned about – compassion and generosity, violence and aggression. Sapolsky is optimistic overall, but he makes it clear that improving society is going to mean fighting our biology in some ways (or, more effectively, learning how to trick it).
Book – Many times while reading In Pieces I couldn’t help but think about Sally Field’s famous remark after accepting her second Academy Award “…you like me, right now, you like me!” I was struck by the fact that throughout most of her life, as described it in this book, she didn’t much like herself.
Many of the choices Ms. Field made in her life were because she was lonely, angry, and easily intimidated. She reveals a good deal about herself, which is often unflattering and sometimes disturbing. Her parents divorced when she was very young, her stepfather abused her, and others passed through her life, coming when they needed something from her, then leaving after. While her mother was present during the time Ms. Field was raising her own children, she didn’t step up for Sally when she needed her the most. Bit by bit, the mother-daughter relationship came together. This book is aptly titled in that her life was lived in pieces.
If you’re looking for a quick, “Oh, I want to hear more about Gidget and what Burt Reynolds were like,” feel-good story, this is not the book for you. If you like exploring the forces in peoples’ lives, particularly celebrities, and the choices they make, you might just like In Pieces.
Book – Minneapolis-based rapper and musician Dessa started out as a poet, so it is not surprising that she would eventually write a book. Like her songs, it’s personal and universal all at once, engaging and easy to read. Every once in a while there’s a punchline that really feels like a punch and makes you put the book down, causing you to take a moment to fully absorb what you just read.
The common thread through the book is her on-again, off-again, tumultuous romantic entanglement with a man she calls X (who you could probably identify if you really wanted to). They fall in love, break up, get back together, hurt each other. Along the way, Dessa considers taking out insurance on her romantic disaster (as a writer of heartbreak songs, she might be out of work without it), shadows her little brother on a day’s work as an artisanal cannabis salesman, tells the story of the airplane her father built, and explores what neuroscience has to say about where love lives in the brain.
Even if you have never listened to one of Dessa’s albums, there is plenty of joy to get out of this book, particularly for the heartbroken and stubborn. Once you have read My Own Devices, you will have a richer experience of listening to her records. Two of her best albums are currently available on Hoopla.
Book – The night her father died, Alice Kingston was attacked by a Nightmare from another world. A year later she’s almost done with her training as a Dreamwalker, someone who stops the Nightmares from coming into our world where they grow even more powerful and dangerous. But Alice isn’t sure she wants to be a Dreamwalker. Sure, it’s great having superpowers and getting to fight monsters with magical weapons, and her mentor Hatta is gorgeous and wonderful, but it’s dangerous work. A girl was killed by police at a high school football game, and ever since Alice’s mom has gotten more and more protective. The choice might be taken away from her, though, when a mysterious knight appears and attacks Alice and Hatta, and may have designs on the whole of reality.
A combination of Alice in Wonderland, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and #BlackGirlMagic, this was by far the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages. Alice is a delight, and it’s great to see Black girls get to be heroes in urban fantasy. I’m not a huge Alice in Wonderland fan, but I loved the way A Blade So Black takes elements from that story – the Red and White Queens, the vorpal blade, Hatta as the Mad Hatter – and incorporates them into a fresh new fantasy. My one complaint is that this is the first book in a series, and now I’m gonna have to wait at least a year to find out what happens next!
Book – Helen Franklin is not happy with her life. She’s worked hard not to be; she is atoning. An English expatriate, she works as a translator in Prague and has only a few friends. When one of them is given a mysterious package of documents by an elderly man working on his memoirs, he spirals into paranoia and fear, dragging Helen with him. Who is this person Melmoth who appears in so many historical writings? Is she a myth or a bogeyman, or is she truly the witness to all humanity’s wrongs, Helen’s included?
I first read Melmoth the Wanderer, the 19th century gothic novel that served as the inspiration for Perry’s new one, on the sunny patio outside my college library, so I was primed to love this book. This is a lovely modernized echo of the original story. In this version, Melmoth is a woman, a lonely creature who longs for someone as broken as she is to keep her company. Told in the fine gothic style of nested narratives – one character reading a story written by another character, which contains a story told to them by a third party – we meet a variety of Melmoth’s potential companions throughout history, from a sixteenth-century nobleman to a young German boy in Nazi-occupied Prague, to Helen’s own tragic history.
Although the story is all about guilt and atonement, and whether or not some things can be atoned for, it’s not as bleak as that makes it sound. There is also a great deal of compassionate humanity and people being better in spite of themselves. I’m happy to report that I loved this book exactly as much as I expected to, and I’m looking forward to whatever Sarah Perry brings us next.
Book – If you’re too busy during the holidays to read a whole book, why not a short story or two? This tiny volume of five stories by Helene Tursten, author of the Detective Inspector Irene Huss mysteries, chronicles the trials and tribulations of an 88-year-old Swedish woman called Maud. She has no remaining family and no close friends, but she lives in her father’s old apartment rent-free and has the money to travel, so she’s quite content with her life. The one thing she can’t tolerate is other people infringing upon her settled existence, and when they do, she takes steps to stop them. Murderous steps.
There’s a certain perverse joy in watching someone get away with murder because everyone assumes that they couldn’t possibly be dangerous. Doubly so when the victims are so obnoxious. Haven’t we all wished we could come up with a permanent solution to a loud, angry, abusive neighbor? Of course, most of us aren’t as clever as Maud. Save yourself the trouble and enjoy her solutions vicariously instead.
TV Series – Father Thomas Ortega is an up-and-coming young priest in Chicago, rebuilding his long-neglected parish and working with the bishop and a local fundraising committee to organize the Pope’s visit to the Windy City. His neat professional trajectory is interrupted when Angela Rance, one of his parishioners, comes to him with a request: her daughter is possessed by a demon, and she wants him to do an exorcism. Rebuffed by the bishop, Ortega turns to Father Marcus Keane, a renowned exorcist who Ortega has never heard of — until the fellow priest appeared in his dreams. Meanwhile, Angela struggles to keep her family together as the demon’s power over her daughter grows more malevolent by the day.
I’m not usually a huge fan of religious horror, and I didn’t much care for the original Exorcist – I just don’t find it all that scary. But while the TV series has just as many jump scares and gross-outs as the movie, with a whole season it has time to do some more interesting things, too. The Rance family dynamics are fascinating, even before the demon shows up, and Father Thomas and Father Marcus are polar opposites in the classic tradition of buddy-cop dramas. There’s conspiracy and ominous foreshadowing; there’s tension over what it means to be a priest; there’s discussion of Gnostic heresies and the dangerous influences of Ouija boards. Most interesting, though, is the portrayal of demonic possession from the point of view of the girl being possessed, letting you see both the power it offers her and the subtle ways it makes her suffer. I really didn’t think you could make a feminist version of The Exorcist, but I think this show has pulled it off.
How does an everyday pastime turn into a work of art? When an 18,000-piece puzzle is completed by a few dozen community members then hung for all to admire.
What started as a playful addition to the Library’s jigsaw puzzle table soon became a challenge for our community’s puzzle enthusiasts. During National Library Week in April, the first quadrant of the Ravensburger Magical Bookcase puzzle was launched. Our regular puzzle people tackled the first section with gusto, taking on both the puzzle and the logistics of expanding and organizing the work space so multiple people could work on different areas of the puzzle at the same time. Word spread about the wonders of this puzzle with its wacky and inspiring book titles. The first 4,500-piece section was finished in early May well before anyone anticipated.
Once Magical Bookcase followers learned of plans to display all four quadrants of the puzzle in the Library, they became inspired to work more quickly so they could see the finished product. Frequent puzzlers invited their family and friends to participate. Before we knew it, August was coming to a close and the final piece of the puzzle was put in place.
In September the Library hosted “The Big Reveal,” an event to unveil and celebrate the completed puzzle. Regular puzzlers shared stories of putting the puzzle together—the intricate details, difficulties, favorite parts and quirky book titles. One even commented that “working on the puzzle allowed me to learn all the different services the library offers from what I observed sitting near the info desk.”
The finished puzzle is a source of amazement and amusement. Measuring 6’ x 9’, you have to see it to believe it. And guess what? It’s really a 17,999 piece masterpiece. The next time you visit Warrenville, we challenge you to show us where the missing piece belongs.
Book – It’s rough living in this world with a body. It seems like there’s always someone to tell you that you’re doing it wrong – your body is too big, too small, too brown, too different, too much. And a lot of advice for dealing with this becomes yet another burden to carry: you must love your body, or you’re letting down the side. You must be beautiful in your own mind, or you are giving in. Sonja Renee Taylor offers a refreshingly different set of strategies, a series of questions and suggestions to put all those demands in context. Who is asking this of you? What do they gain by asking you to do this work? And how can you love yourself – not just your body, but your whole self – in spite of it all?
I’m very picky about self-help books. I’m not interested in anything that suggests there is one simple solution to a large and complex problem (which is, of course, what most self-help books are trying to sell). Taylor does offer just one solution, but it’s far from a simple one – learn how to love yourself in defiance of everything in the world that tells you that you are unlovable. She offers a range of tools for beginning that work, but never suggests that she has the only answers, only that she has answers that have worked for her and for others in the past. There’s a lot to digest in this short book – less than 120 pages – but it’s all very, very worthwhile.
Book – A call center routes calls to the afterlife. A bereaved daughter writes to her recently deceased father about her missing mother. A girl puts on her great-grandmother’s wedding dress and disappears into the mountain. A society of symbiotes living and working inside their mother begins to crumble. Told in beautiful, spare prose, Jagannath is a remarkable collection of short stories from Swedish writer Karen Tidbeck.
Tidbeck translates her own work, and there’s a lovely essay in the back of the book about how the process of composition and translation differs between languages. But if you didn’t know these were translations, you’d never guess. The pictures these stories draw are so vivid, so crisp and clear, you feel you could walk right into them – even the strangest of stories, like those about the ever-increasing aunts who grow their successors inside their own hearts. If you’re only familiar with Nordic literature from the dark thrillers that have become so popular in recent years, give this collection a try.