Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.
What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.
Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.
But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.
Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.
Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.
Chances are you've never heard of the Punk Skunks. Despite their unique sound and emphasis on positive themes such as friendship, they remain largely ignored by the music industry, perhaps because they are skunks. But all of that’s about to change thanks to the new picture book Punk Skunks by the husband and wife team of Trisha Speed Shaskan and Stephen Shaskan.
Kit and Buzz were two BSFs (best skunks forever) who loved skateboarding, riding bikes, spray painting (literally spraying smelly pictures with their tails) and hanging out at their favorite club, ABCDs. But what they liked to do most of all was rock out. They bonded over their love of great punk bands such as the Ratmoans, the DescendAnts and Shrewsie Shrew, and gained a cult following thanks to their catchy songs “We’re Buzz and Kit” and “BSF.” But all of that was about to change.
One day while jamming at their practice space, the two musical geniuses clashed. Kit wanted to sing a song about skating and Buzz wanted to sing a song about painting. The creative differences were irreconcilable, and the Punk Skunks were no more. But was this really the end? Will this dynamic duo go the way of Lennon and McCartney, Jones and Strummer, Adam and his Ants? You’ll have to read to find out!
Even if you aren’t familiar with the Punk Skunks, this playful homage to the days of Chuck Taylors and safety pins has enough charm to make superfans of even the most jaded punks. And you can get to know these creative critters even better through this article at The Little Crooked Cottage where they were recently interviewed by a pig.
A war is raging over magic’s presence in the world. Exorcists and priests are pursuing witches and demons, purging them from the world until there is only one place left where the connection to magic remains strong — Ireland. In Mark Tompkins’s debut novel The Last Days of Magic, human and fairy politics collide as the war over magic comes to Ireland’s shores, and it's not always obvious who can be trusted — on either side.
Tompkins’s worldbuilding is detailed and well-researched, blending mythology, mysticism and historical fact together to craft a historical fantasy retelling of the 1390s. His cast includes people straight out of history, from Richard II to Saints Patrick and Brigid, and out of mythology, such as the Morrigna and the Sidhe. And Tompkins threads these together with facts and speculations from Vatican history, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and witch trials.
You might think that having all of these elements in play would lead to a convoluted or overworked plot, but Tompkins balances the historical and the fantastical to create characters that are flawed and intriguing and a plot filled with political intrigue. It leaves the reader wondering where historical fact actually ends and the myths begin. Fans of Morgan Llywelyn or Juliet Marillier might want to check this book out.
What happens when a little girl goes missing but doesn't know she's lost? Welsh writer Kate Hamer chronicles one such story in her debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat. Told with compassion and sensitivity, this riveting and thought-provoking mystery about a missing child will you keep you under its spell long after the last page. And if you’re concerned about the subject matter, don’t worry, because Hamer has produced an uplifting story filled with hope and optimism.
Beth is a single mother living in rural England. Divorced and estranged from her parents, her world is her daughter Carmel, a vivacious 8-year-old with curly hair and a penchant for drifting off into space. It's the two of them against the world — until the day Carmel disappears into the fog. Who took her? Why? Beth’s guilt and grief jump off the page and into your heart. How did she lose her daughter? Will she find her? Will her guilt ever subside?
But what happened to Carmel? Believing her family no longer wants her, she is living with a man she calls “Gramps” and his family. Carmel does not know she's lost. But who is this man called “Gramps”? Why must she go by the name Mercy? Why do they live in a big truck and not a proper house?
Told alternatively from both Beth and Carmel’s viewpoints, Hamer delivers a page-turner focusing on the strength of the human spirit. Beth and Carmel will captivate you with their determination and strength while keeping you reading into the wee hours of the night. Readers participating in BCPL’s 2016 Reading Challenge should note that The Girl in the Red Coat satisfies the challenge of reading a book with a color in the title.
Children of the Sea is at times about the ocean, at times about the power of myth and spirits, at times about young people trying to discover themselves and their needs. One thing it is always, from the first page to the last panel, is breathtakingly magical.
Ruka’s summer isn’t looking so great. She has few friends, and her relationship with her parents is strained. Her moments of peace and clarity come from visiting the aquarium where her father works, gazing into the tanks and slowly sensing the life force of the sea creatures as it transforms into glowing lights right before her eyes. Her meditation is interrupted one day, however, when a young boy appears in the tank she’d been gazing at — completely out of place and yet exactly at home, somehow.
The boy who at first appeared to be a mystical creature is Umi, a ward of the aquarium while his scientist caretaker works on research there. Along with his more mysterious, reserved brother Sora, Umi takes Ruka out to the ocean, which has become more of their natural habitat than the land most humans walk. As she swims with Sora and Umi, they become friends, but the mystery of their nature and their strangely aquatic bodies becomes more complex. Ruka finds herself determined to help her new friends.
Soft, mystical and deeply gorgeous, Children of the Sea is a work of art to be dwelled over page by page. Igarashi’s storytelling makes full use of his stylistic yet depth-oriented illustration, taking the reader on an impossibly immersive journey to the bottom of the sea.
In Second House from the Corner, Sadeqa Johnson introduces us to Felicia Lyons, a stay-at-home mom with three kids under 6 and a hard-working but somewhat imperious husband. While she loves her family, there are moments when the relentless drudgery of keeping house and dealing with screaming children are overwhelming, and Felicia wonders what life would be like without the responsibilities of kids and the demands on her time.
But be careful what you wish for! One night Felicia receives a phone call that turns her world upside down. The phone call is from Martin, the significantly older man who seduced her as a teenager and left her emotionally battered. When her husband learns of her illicit past, he is devastated and feels completely betrayed. Felicia is at sea, concerned for the future of her marriage and family, but also intrigued by Martin’s call and the reignited feelings she thought were doused so long ago. She returns to her childhood home in Philadelphia to face her past in an effort to secure her family’s future. But one bad decision leads to another, and everything she has worked so hard for is in peril.
Felicia is a strong, relatable woman with a compelling history. Part chick lit, part domestic drama, Johnson utilizes short chapters to quicken the pace of the narrative and keep the reader riveted. Felicia is not a perfect woman, which makes her all the more likeable in spite of her flaws and questionable choices. Johnson does not tiptoe around challenging topics giving a raw, realistic edge to Felicia’s life-changing journey.
Pax, a new book by award-winning author Sara Pennypacker, will linger with readers long after they finish the final page. The story is told alternately by a young orphaned fox named Pax, and Peter, the boy who saved him. Peter found Pax shortly after his own mother died, and his father grudgingly let him keep the fox “for now.”
“For now” turned into five years. Pax becomes Peter’s family since his father is usually gone and is emotionally distant even when he is home. Now war threatens their home, and Peter’s father announces he is leaving to join the fight. Peter must stay with his formidable grandfather, a man who doesn’t approve of tame foxes. Peter is forced to abandon the now-domesticated Pax who lives off kibble, in the wilderness. The moment the boy leaves his fox behind, he knows he has made a terrible mistake.
While stories about lost pets are familiar to us, this one is unique. The journey that Pax and Peter take in order to find each other tests both, and they meet new characters who change them and us forever. As they come to understand difficult truths about the world, so do readers.
Pennypacker doesn’t offer a specific setting, just a land being destroyed by war. The conflict, which is never really clearly explained to readers either, affects not only the people, but also the land and the creatures. The story isn’t a simple protest against war, but a plea for people to be honest about the real price of conflict.
Pennypacker’s writing is beautiful. With clarity and compassion one doesn’t often find in children’s books, she addresses complicated themes like loneliness, love and the cost of war.
The art for this book is created by Caldecott award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen and perfectly matches the story in its simple, poignant style.
Pax is great for readers who enjoyed Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey. Fans of these great animal stories will also enjoy Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt.
Soloman and Jimmy are half-brothers and have been friends with Aleks since childhood. Having grown up imprisoned by a land made of asphalt and cement, the three men struggle and support one another in a vanguard against the inertia of suburban life. Each one is on a quest: Soloman seeks a purpose after his basketball career is destroyed by an injury, Jimmy tries to find someone to love and Aleks strives to give his family as much as he can. They are guided by music, “b-boy” (hip-hop) idols and graffiti. Here Come the Dogs is the first novel by Omar Musa, an award-winning Australian poet and rapper.
Musa has filled his book with mischievous wordsmithing, alternating between narrative poetry and lyrical prose. Heavily immersed in the Australian hip-hop scene, Musa references musicians on almost every page but readers do not need to be familiar with Australian rap to be moved by the passion with which Musa describes it. The stories within will appeal to anyone who enjoys dramatic fiction contextualized with larger themes, including fans of The Wire and Breaking Bad.
One focus in Musa's writing is the diverse makeup of Australian neighborhoods. He has written characters that are both within and outside of their society. Aleks, Jimmy and Soloman all have the ability to cross cultural borders, but each faces unique struggles that prevent them from ever feeling wholly integrated in their communities. While Australia's recipe for a melting pot varies from that of the U.S., the struggles of a post-colonial society are far from alien, and the undercurrent of race riots flowing throughout the novel is particularly significant here in the Baltimore area.