Category Archives: staff picks

Cover of The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, showing a hearse under a storm cloud

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist : a True Story of Injustice in the American South, by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

Cover of The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, showing a hearse under a storm cloudInvestigative journalist Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington, Director of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi, have put together a heart-rending account of the institutional racism embedded in the intersection of law and science in Mississippi. The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist of the title are Dr. Stephen Hayne and Dr. Michael West, who together held sway over the murder investigation and prosecution  for decades. Leaning heavily on an antiquated system of county coroners, complicit officials who fought hard to maintain the Jim Crow status quo and a gloss of CSI-style razzle-dazzle and jargon, Haynes  literally cornered the market on autopsies in the state and brought along his friend West, who professed expertise in a number of shaky forensic techniques.

The two became the favored experts for prosecutors. not least for their creativity and willingness to shape the “evidence” to the state’s needs.  Judges accepted the “science.” State officials refused to staff or fund a modern medical examiner’s office. Haynes and West grew rich and famous.  And innocent people, mostly African-American, went to jail.  While two of the wrongly convicted men detailed in the book were exonerated when Haynes and West eventually fell from grace, many others remain imprisoned with no systematic review of this deep injustice likely.  This is not a story with a happy ending, but one that will leave you shaking your head and whispering Mississippi goddam.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the “wild west.” Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into the nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.

*Recommended by Mike

 

Grimacing toddler on the cover of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl

Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkardness by Melissa Dahl

Grimacing toddler on the cover of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl You probably know the feeling well. You’re lying in bed, just trying to fall asleep, but images of your worst moments in junior high — the bad haircut, the wrong clothes, the time you called the teacher “Mommy” —  just will not stop tapdancing through your painfully conscious mind.

That’s the feeling Melissa Dahl investigates in Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.  To get deep inside the cringe, Dahl talks to anthropologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and advice columnists. She puts her own social discomforts, teenage angst and work dilemmas in the spotlight to illustrate and individualize scientific studies and broad research. She pores over her own online writing; attends workshops to learn to talk about race; even reads from her teenage diaries on stage.

Her eager search for compassion for her awkward self — indeed, for all the cringing selves everywhere — is deep and kind and just plain funny. You’ll cringe in sympathy, and maybe stretch your understanding of this very, very human experience.

The awkward in me sees and bows to the awkward in all of you.

*Recommended by Susan.

Book cover - Caroline by Sarah Miller

“Caroline” by Sarah Elizabeth Miller

In this novel authorized by the Little House Heritage Trust, Sarah Miller vividly recreates the beauty, hardship, and joys of the frontier in a dazzling work of historical fiction, a captivating story that illuminates one courageous, resilient, and loving pioneer woman as never before—Caroline Ingalls, “Ma” in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books.

In the frigid days of February, 1870, Caroline Ingalls and her family leave the familiar comforts of the Big Woods of Wisconsin and the warm bosom of her family, for a new life in Kansas Indian Territory. Packing what they can carry in their wagon, Caroline, her husband Charles, and their little girls, Mary and Laura, head west to settle in a beautiful, unpredictable land full of promise and peril.

The pioneer life is a hard one, especially for a pregnant woman with no friends or kin to turn to for comfort or help. The burden of work must be shouldered alone, sickness tended without the aid of doctors, and babies birthed without the accustomed hands of mothers or sisters. But Caroline’s new world is also full of tender joys. In adapting to this strange new place and transforming a rough log house built by Charles’ hands into a home, Caroline must draw on untapped wells of strength she does not know she possesses.

For more than eighty years, generations of readers have been enchanted by the adventures of the American frontier’s most famous child, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in the Little House books. Now, that familiar story is retold in this captivating tale of family, fidelity, hardship, love, and survival that vividly reimagines our past.

*Recommended by Hannele

Book cover - The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

Are trees social beings? In this international bestseller, forester and author Peter Wohlleben convincingly makes the case that, yes, the forest is a social network. He draws on groundbreaking scientific discoveries to describe how trees are like human families: tree parents live together with their children, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers. Wohlleben also shares his deep love of woods and forests, explaining the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in his woodland.

*Recommended by Sharon

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

What should we have for dinner? Ten years ago, Michael Pollan confronted us with this seemingly simple question and, with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, his brilliant and eye-opening exploration of our food choices, demonstrated that how we answer it today may determine not only our health but our survival as a species. In the years since, Pollan’s revolutionary examination has changed the way Americans think about food. Bringing wide attention to the little-known but vitally important dimensions of food and agriculture in America, Pollan launched a national conversation about what we eat and the profound consequences that even the simplest everyday food choices have on both ourselves and the natural world. Ten years later, The Omnivore’s Dilemma continues to transform the way Americans think about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating.

*Recommended by Al

Bookcover - Upstream by Mary Oliver

Upstream by Mary Oliver

So begins Upstream, a collection of essays in which revered poet Mary Oliver reflects on her willingness, as a young child and as an adult, to lose herself within the beauty and mysteries of both the natural world and the world of literature. Emphasizing the significance of her childhood “friend” Walt Whitman, through whose work she first understood that a poem is a temple, “a place to enter, and in which to feel,” and who encouraged her to vanish into the world of her writing, Oliver meditates on the forces that allowed her to create a life for herself out of work and love. As she writes, “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

*Recommended by Sharon

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

The daughter of a Chinese mother and a Japanese father, Tsukiyama uses the Japanese invasion of China during the late 1930s as a somber backdrop for her unusual story about a 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen who is sent to his family’s summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu’s secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu’s generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu’s soulmate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.

*Recommended by Stephanie 

Bookcover - Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes

Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes

Spirit Lake is not far from Hotel Paradise; it’s a small lake, neglected, partly covered with water lilies and overhung by tall, blowing grass. To those who have lived in the town for a while, it’s also notorious because a small child drowned there over forty years ago – a death that no one has ever been able to explain. Puzzled by questions that don’t appear to have occurred to the adults around her, a local twelve-year-old girl has become increasingly obsessed with this death. Inquisitive and intelligent, she talks frequently to sheriff Sam De Gheyn and her friend Maud Chadwick about it. A second death at the lake raises suspicion, and with her innocent knack of encouraging adults to reminisce, she begins to put together the pieces of a past and present puzzle. And in doing so realises that there are some mysteries that can never be wholly solved.

*Recommended by Hannele

The Double Blind by Chris Bohjalian

The Double Blind by Chris Bohjalian

When Laurel Estabrook is attacked while out riding her bike one Sunday afternoon, her life is changed forever. She begins work at a shelter for the homeless and there meets Bobbie Crocker, a man with a history of mental illness and a box full of photos he won’t let anyone see. When Bobbie dies suddenly, Laurel discovers that he was once a successful photographer, and her fascination with his former life begins to merge into obsession, not least because some of the photos are of the very same forest trail where she was attacked and nearly killed. Laurel becomes convinced that his photos reveal a deeply hidden, dark family secret. Her search for the truth leads her further from her own life and into a cat-and-mouse game with pursuers who claim they want to save her.

*Recommended by Karen