Many of us enjoy nature as a way to “get away from it all,” but in Tracy Ross’s case, this is taken to the extreme. A victim of childhood abuse, she spent years exploring the wildest parts of the American West as she tried to come to terms with her past. Paradoxically, it was her abusive father that had nurtured her love of the natural world. This dynamic makes Tracy’s story all the more poignant, and forms the most intriguing aspect of the book. However, it could easily stand alone as nature writing. Tracy is currently an editor of Backpacker magazine, and it shows! She beautifully captures amazing landscapes, adventure, and the intangible value of the outdoors.
Janelle's Past Picks
You’ll want to read this book simply because it’s this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. But the second you finish it, you’ll want to read it again. There will be glowing sentences you wish you’d written down, and more you want to understand about the characters. Beautiful imagery and expression abound. Set in the last days of an old man’s life, the story reaches back into the two preceding generations. Along the way, it explores time, family, death, epilepsy, and the natural world. You’ll meet sensitive, talented men trying to find their way despite challenges, some succeeding more than others. Whether describing how to build a bird’s nest or how to fix a clock, the characters share a deep reverence for detail and the small things in life. The author’s unique use of language encourages you to reflect and see the world in this same way. Take your time!
These true accounts of the Mile High City include something for everyone, from first-time visitor to proud native. I grew up only one-half hour away from Denver, and surprisingly, much of the detail covered in the book was new to me. The author has chosen 25 pivotal events covering a time span of 1859 (when the city was a prime example of the Wild West) to the 1993 renovation of Lower Downtown (based around the Rockies’ baseball stadium.) Some of the stories celebrate the ingenuity of Denver’s residents over the years. Some present history we might rather forget, but from which we can learn. Colorful characters from Buffalo Bill to Jack Kerouac are mentioned. This book is a great gift for Coloradans curious about their Western city and surrounding areas, or a fun read for anyone vacationing here who wants a taste of Colorado flavor.
What an interesting and conflict-filled time in American history. What an interesting and conflicted main character! This book tells the story of Clarence King, the first director of the United States Geological Survey. King was quite notable around the time of the Civil War as an adventurous explorer, renowned geologist and writer. What was not known, even to his closest friends, was the secret life he held for many years. Clarence privately married an African American woman, Ada, and eventually had five children with her. Despite deceiving her about his identity for their entire marriage, he provided for her and never married another. Reading the book, you may consider King a spineless liar or a dedicated husband trying to support a family in an unjust society. Either way, Passing Strange reveals a unique relationship you won’t soon forget.
A disturbing look at where your meals have likely come from (and what they may have suffered in the name of profit.) Not an easy read, but a well-researched one.
A thought-provoking, timely book. The premise is that global warming is real and urgent (hot), that a huge middle class (flat) is appearing in countries like India and China--which will become American-like consumers, and that an exponentially-growing population (crowded) will likewise exceed the limits of our resources and ecological processes if we don't change our ways. The second half of the book describes the sorts of changes Friedman deems necessary to avoid catastrophe, and how they must involve a true revolution in American thinking and national policy.
Hopefully this book will get the acclaim in the US that it has in other countries! The story hosts several generations of a damaged Norwegian family constantly reinventing themselves. Bawdy, irreverent, but surprisingly touching. Despite their flaws (or perhaps because of them), the characters will win you over as they struggle through universal--and not so universal--trials of life. An entertaining and ever-surprising read.
Beginning in New York in 1925, the Russian protagonist struggles to find a life as a new immigrant. She doesn't make the wisest choices, but what she lacks in common sense, she makes up for in adventure. She ends up in Alaska, headed to Siberia in a search for her daughter--thought lost in violence in her home country. A quick read pulled along by a fearless, determined young woman.
Ever been trapped in an airport due to a cancelled flight, when you have somewhere very important to go? You can sympathize, then, with this main character’s frustration, becoming increasingly desperate as the hours tick by. Being the literary sort, he begins composing a refund request—but it soon becomes a chronicle of his life (explaining why completing his trip is so critical.) After all, he has the time! His wry commentary on the airline industry makes for good laughs. His life experience is heartrending. A tragicomic look at alcoholism, broken marriage and ridiculous elements of the airline industry.
Ever wanted to go to Thailand? Visit from your armchair in this book! The author taught English there for several years and shares her experiences with the foreign culture and landscape, mostly urban but also countryside. She developed a love for Bangkok in particular and brings it vividly to life.
A fascinating factual account of the events surrounding the 1996 burning of the famous Fenice theatre in Venice. Few Americans were aware of this culturally significant event, and this book is a suspenseful, detailed way to inform oneself. Berendt brings the city to vibrant life through the eyes of colorful residents as the he explores theories of the cause of the fire. Another great offering in the nonfiction-that-reads-like-fiction style of the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Set in a state art school in the 1950s, this is a hilarious look at what happens when creativity meets psychological torture. The main character is challenged by a particularly demanding professor, who he actually comes to idolize. In the meantime he strikes a friendship with an off-the-wall, rebellious fellow art student who you can't help loving. Funny, funny!
Adults, don't run away! Although designed for 9 to 11 year-olds, this book will enchant anyone young-hearted. Neil Gaiman (the author of Coraline, to give you an idea) has written another darkly funny, clever, and inventive story that moves at a quick pace. The main character, Bod, is raised by ghosts in a graveyard in order to stay hidden from the man who murdered his family. Unique challenges and skills arise, as well as quirky friendships. A great summer read unlike any other, or great fun for the child curious about ghosts!
Note: If you enjoy this book, try Good Omens by the same author for adults.
If you appreciate poetry, you must have Mary Oliver! Winner of both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, she writes beautifully in this collection, primarily about nature. Her words plant you wherever she describes, burying you in sensual images.
What more do you need than an endorsement from Jon Stewart?
Although the book was designed for teens, the universal themes of desire for approval and the fantasy of world domination will ring true with plenty of adults. The main character appears on the surface to be a typical loser, overweight and friendless. However, he made some wise investments as a very young child and is now enormously wealthy, with a cadre of guards and assistants. Problem is, his dad (clueless about his son’s self-built empire) just doesn’t appreciate or respect him. How to remedy this? Winning the school elections as a total underdog, of course! If he can only survive the embarrassment of Mom pitching in for the campaign, he might be able to pull some strings…
This book is the result of the author’s research (based on conservative or government data, fact-checked by two outside sources) on the realities of the US meat supply. If you eat meat, or if you feed it to your children, you should know the facts: “99% of all land animals [including poultry] eaten or used to produce milk and eggs in the US are factory farmed.” What is factory farming? “A system of industrialized and intensive agriculture in which animals—often housed by the tens or even hundreds of thousands—are genetically engineered, restricted in mobility, and fed unnatural diets (which almost always include various drugs, like antimicrobials)…all [factory farms] harm animals in ways that would be illegal according to even relatively weak animal welfare legislation.” Care about the environment you’ll leave your children? “Animal agriculture makes a 40% greater contribution to global warming than all transportation in the world combined; it is the number one cause of climate change.” Beef? Even if cattle are raised on pasture, they are trucked to slaughter for up to 48 hours with no food or water, often in extreme heat and cold. Inspectors are not generally allowed to watch their actual slaughter. Chicken? According to Consumer Reports, 83% of all chicken meat is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase. Guess why you have to be so careful how you prepare/cook it??? Humane? It is standard practice to sear off their beaks and allow them less space each than a piece of printer paper. “Cage free” or “free range” are not what they imply. Pork? Bacon? Pregnant pigs and those who recently gave birth are usually kept in crates too small for them to turn around, without bedding. The huge outdoor lagoons of their untreated feces frequently spill into surrounding water and their fumes cause chronic illness in their vicinity. Ever eat Tyson meats? (Quite likely, they’re the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork…) The author sent a request to them SIX times, asking if he could meet “farmers” or tour “farms”, and never got a response. Sound suspicious? Fish in this industry? Never killed humanely, and dozens of species of “non-target” sea creatures including whales and turtles are hooked or netted, die and are thrown overboard in the mass-fishing industry. (Called “bycatch” by the industry.) Swine flu and bird flu? Caused by crossover of illness from factory farms. Our growing resistance to antibiotics? Most factory farmed animals are fed antibiotics before they get sick, to combat unsanitary conditions and make them grow faster. Worldwide sources state that the next pandemic will be linked to factory farming. If you’re still thinking, “But I like eating meat!”, then at least read this book to make an educated decision. Not just the animals’ welfare, but your own, and that of the planet, is at stake. Or, if you’d consider going vegetarian, are you worried about staying healthy? The American Dietetic Association says, “Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and for athletes.” The author emphasizes that by eating meat one chooses to finance the above-described industry on a daily basis. The question is, do you really want to?
A must for Alice in Wonderland fans interested in how the story came to be! The author of Alice I Have Been blends fact, fiction, and speculation regarding the lives of Lewis Carroll (a.k.a. Charles Dodgson) and the true-life Alice upon which the story was based, Alice Liddell. Speaking from the perspective of an aging woman, Alice reflects on a life greatly affected by society’s speculation surrounding her youthful relations with Carroll. (He was eccentric and behaved in ways leading people to suspect him as a pedophile, although no proof was ever found of him consummating this inclination.) Although they were closest friends when Alice was 7, she and Carroll became estranged as adults. This book is a good introduction to a fascinating man, and an interesting study of elite English intellectuals near the turn of the 20th century.
I remember when I first heard about the hate-crime murder of Matthew Shepard. It felt like a physical blow, similar to what I felt seeing planes hit the Twin Towers—shock that such a horror had occurred in the U.S. in present time. Despite all the media coverage at the time (1998), I felt that I didn’t know the true story, and most of all, didn’t know who Matt really was. I knew he was a gay college student who suffered a horrendous crime and drew a lot of attention to the issue of discrimination, but I wanted to know more. So when I saw that his mother had written a book, I had to read it.
The book is both an intimate look at Matt and a call to action for still-unresolved issues in Congress and society as a whole. It made me feel an urgency to see federal hate crime laws finally passed, and I hope its publication will renew interest in and activism on this topic and on gay rights.
What a powerful, thought-provoking book! It covers the true, yet unbelievable, series of events that one New Orleans family underwent after Hurricane Katrina. While Zeitoun’s family decides to leave the city, he stays to watch over his rental properties and construction sites. Safe and able to function throughout the storm, he doesn’t know the worst is yet to come. He is arrested, falsely accused of looting, and spends weeks in a makeshift prison without being allowed any outside contact. Meanwhile, of course, his family is certain he is dead. Zeitoun is a Syrian American, and it appears that at least some of his predicament is the result of racial profiling. It is shocking that in Zeitoun’s case, military attempts to maintain order during the storm were actually more of a danger than Katrina itself! This book will give you a whole new perspective on the hurricane.
Telex from Cuba is a fascinating, evocative view of Cuba in the 1950s, when Fidel Castro and his brother were starting a guerilla movement and American sugar cane plantations ruled the economy. Told from the various perspectives of family members of sugar “kings” and a few others, this novel is highly informative while being extremely readable. The rampant ignorance and racism of expatriates at the time is quite disturbing; unfortunately, one realizes that the American capitalist habit of using foreign workers to operate more cheaply is not a thing of the past. This is a well-written book that brings social history into painful focus and leaves one reflecting on what has and hasn’t changed in the world of international commerce.
True, it’s no secret that many great artists are a bit eccentric, but you may not realize just how much “dirt” exists on the great masters. This book takes a look at 35 well-recognized artists in personal detail, with humor and irreverence. Renowned illustrator Mario Zucca contributes a wealth of expressive pictures that top off the fun.
If you love art, or particularly art history, this book is a must-have (or an excellent gift for the art lovers in your life!) If you know very little about art, or find it a bit boring, this book just might change that.
The author introduces each artist with a brief summary including when they lived, their most famous work and media used — handy if you want to come across more cultured than you actually are — then elaborates on their biography and oddities in the text.
For a really complete gift, or to further educate yourself and see the works of art referred to in the book, consider purchasing an art history book such as The Annotated Mona Lisa by Carol Strickland or Art History for Dummies by Jesse Bryant Wilder!
This book is the respite you’ve only dreamed of—a laugh-out-loud novel featuring our financial crisis! The central character is a forty-something dad who has been laid off and is now within a week of losing his house. He also has reason to suspect that his security-hungry wife may be having an affair, so the house detail has not yet been passed on to her and the pressure is enormous. A midnight visit to a 7/11 gives said husband an inspiration of how to quickly solve his money woes, and it’s all downhill from there. The author cleverly interweaves painfully true elements of our modern daily lives with the bizarre and coincidental. The result is hilarious, elaborately plotted, touching, and full of great characters. Disclaimer: illegal drug content.
Ali is an outspoken political figure deeply affected by radical Islam, and her autobiography chronicles her formative experiences and current peril. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, she suffered abuse and limited freedom in their Muslim cultures. Unwilling to become the victim of an arranged marriage, she fled to the Netherlands for a college education and eventually became a member of Parliament. This book is a stirring portrait of an impassioned feminist and a scathing indictment of Islamic practices which violate women's rights.
If the author Barbara Kingsolver isn’t enough to make you pick up this book, have you heard of Frida Kahlo or Diego Rivera? Kingsolver creates a fictional character who works for, then develops a friendship with, these two celebrated Mexican artists. This friend is a writer born in America but raised in Mexico, who has a lifelong struggle reconciling the two cultures. Kingsolver’s language shines when adapted in the role of this writer, and there are many other levels on which to get drawn into this novel. Along with learning about two famous international artists, you get a feel for what living in the U.S. during WWII rationing and the “Red Scare” might have been like. Actual New York Times articles, seamlessly woven into the story, are surprisingly revealing about the journalism of the time. The ending appears predictable, but then takes a turn. A gem of historical fiction and another great read from a renowned author!