With spring just around the corner, it’s almost time to take the books outside to the patios and porches.
If you’re looking for literature worthy of your time, Up To Date’s group of avid readers — author Steve Paul; Director of Reader Services, Kansas City Public Library Kaite Stover; and chairman of the English department at Barstow School Mark Luce – have curated a list of their old and new favourites. (They also suggest looking at the Washington Post and New York Times book reviews and libraryread.org.)
Steve Paul’s advice
“Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century” (Random House) by Jennifer Homans. Biography.
An expert and highly readable biography of a cultural icon. From the first sentence onwards, this book is beautifully written and displays compelling authority as Homans, a dance critic for The New Yorker, exposes Balanchine’s character in front of secrets and mysteries starting with his birth in Czarist Russia. Anyone with an interest in American ballet, music, and dance history will find meaningful bites and come away with a new understanding of this immensely influential and complicated figure.
“The White Mosque” (Catapult) by Sofia Samatar. A memory.
A writer’s journey to little-known corners of her ancestry informs her identity as a biracial woman raised in the Mennonite faith. She conjures a captivating, poetic voice as she takes the reader outside herself into history, philosophy and arduous journeys in remote Central Asia. A keen observer of detail, Samatar builds her exploratory narrative around the backbone of a travel essay, in which she attempts to follow what is known as the Great Mennonite Journey through Central Asia in the 1800s in hopes of experiencing the Rapture . Her voice, often self-deprecating and unsure of herself and sometimes humorous, increases her attraction.
“Easy Beauty: A Memoir” (Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster) by Chloé Cooper Jones. A memory.
Unexpectedly compelling, it speaks to the power of surprise when entering a book you know nothing about. This is a unique personal story, shaped around the physical anomaly of the author’s body and enriched by difficult family situations and intentional journeys that she undertakes as a brilliant academic, philosopher and freelance journalist. Cooper Jones, who has some roots in Tonganoxie, Kansas, draws on philosophical and literary wisdom, contextualizing his changing feelings and her mindscape. He explains the story with a brilliant narrative plan, flitting through time, teasing and connecting experiences and reflections with abrupt changes, cliffhangers and echoing images. Readers will encounter thoughts on beauty in art, beauty in life, beauty in tennis, all things, and beauty in motherhood.
“The Big Sea: An Autobiography” (Thunder’s Mouth Press) by Langston Hughes. Autobiography.
I had occasion to revisit this fascinating book, originally published in 1940. It is Hughes’ memoir of growing up in Kansas and elsewhere and emerging as a poet in the 1920s jazz age. Hughes’ experiences as a freighter crewman and kitchen worker are raw, funny and eye-opening as he writes without batting an eyelid about race, Jim Crow, and social and economic inequality, which, as we know, are topics as topical as they are. they come. I was particularly impressed by some of the exquisite observations and writings he offers about his travels in Africa and his early days in Paris and Harlem.
Kaite Stover’s advice
“Infinitum” (Amistad) by Tim Fielder. Graphic novel.
The Kansas City Public Library describes this book as “an Afrofuturist graphic novel that presents a new universe, tackling racism, classism, and gender equality while exposing ancient mysteries.” Graphic novel aficionados will love the active, colorful and expressive art that pulses off the page. If the entire book moves like a storyboard for a film of epic proportions, then you have the right feeling for Fielder’s work: he’s also a director with his brother to him. This book is for fans of the recent film “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” Janelle Monae’s short story collection “The Memory Librarian,” and the expansive storytelling that proves that pictures can do what words cannot.
“Culture: Our Story, From Rock Art to K-Pop” (WW Norton) by Martin Puchner. nonfiction.
Harvard professor Puchner looks at culture from cave paintings, Greek tragedies and the arts in Egypt, China, Europe and South America to the present day, all from different perspectives. Puchner recounts the ways we discovered, rediscovered, destroyed, fabricated, manipulated, syncretized, erased, and preserved the wisdom and cultures of those who came before us. An exhilarating roller coaster ride through the culture of mankind. Yes, it’s fast, but it’s punchy and inclusive. Everything new interacts with the old in our culture.
“Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone” (Mariner Books) by Benjamin Stevenson. Comic mystery.
“Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the best of us, have killed more than once,” says Ernie, who recognizes early on the recent trend in detective fiction for storytellers like himself who are unreliable. He self-publishes how-to books for aspiring authors. Or, as another character observes, “Write books about how to write books you’ve never written, bought by people who’ll never write one.” A welcome break for fans of serious detective fiction, this sardonic comedic mystery is for fans of “Knives Out” and “Glass Onion.” Sure, you might not get it all the way through, but you’ll have a great time getting there.
“The Phantom Tollbooth” (Knopf) by Norman Juster. Medium classic.
According to the Kansas City Public Library description, “Milo, a young boy with little interest in anything, takes a journey through the ghost toll booth to the lands beyond where he meets an enchanting cast of characters who teach him the importance of words, numbers, ideas, creativity and enthusiasm for life.” I promised myself to read a children’s book, and all my friends in children’s services gasp when I tell them I’ve never read it. Norton Juster died in 2021 which prompted me to read it. He so far he is exceeding my expectations and is more intelligent and witty than I expected. It might be a children’s book but it’s great for adults too. I love the illustrations and the pun. It’s a delight.
Mark Luce’s advice
“The Book of Bedside Birds: An Avian Miscellaneous” (Nan A. Talese) by Graeme Gibson. nonfiction.
Canadian writer and longtime partner of Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson was an avid bird watcher, traversing the world in search of sightings. In this joyful collection, Gibson mixes personal stories with an assortment of excerpts, poems and images. While I don’t have it by my bed, I’ve found quiet late-night solace learning about various birds in Gibson’s clever prose and impeccable editorial decisions.
“The storm” (Penguin Random House) by William Shakespeare. Fiction
This summer the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival will present the Bard’s latest play (it’s also taking place in Barstow in March). Whether you read it as a critique of the colonial excess of the Age of Exploration, a story of budding love, a comedy about comedies, or a fantastic wizarding story, “The Tempest” allows art to enchant.
“Mrs. Dalloway” (Mariner Books) by Virginia Woolf. Fiction
Clarissa Dalloway may be buying flowers for the party herself, but in the rest of the novel she is grappling with her past, her marriage and her own shortcomings. Woolf writes with richness and precision, capturing in his inimitable stream of consciousness issues of mental health, the decline of the British Empire, and the class and gender straitjackets of 1920s London.
“March” trilogy (Top Shelf Productions) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Graphic novel.
This masterful three-volume graphic novel tells the story of John Lewis’ childhood leading up to the celebration of the Voting Rights Act. We see the Georgia lawmaker as a child inspired by a cartoon about Martin Luther King, Jr., as a college student organizing protests and as a 25-year-old man receiving batons during the march on Selma. This award-winning autobiography is an in-depth look at the civil rights movement.