ON THE SHELF: Nonfiction titles to improve your life and make you think

Published 8:00 am Sunday, April 9, 2023

This column was submitted by Evangeline Cessna, Local History Librarian at the Warren County-Vicksburg Public Library.

This week’s column features New Adult Nonfiction.

Author Jenny Odell explores what happens when you don’t have time to spend in her book “Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock.” Odell takes a deep dive into the fundamental structure of our society and realizes that the clock we live by was designed for profit, not people. She offers ideas about different ways we can experience time — inspired by pre-industrial cultures, ecological cues and geological time scales. As beings bound to our planet, we live with shortening and lengthening days along with gardening cycles, bird migrations and geophysical changes happening all around us. Odell urges us to embrace different rhythms of life and time that are not reducible to standardized units. She wants us to imagine a world not centered on work, the office clock or profit motive and learn to “save” time by imagining a life and source of meaning outside of these things.

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In “The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery” by Adam Gopnik, the author explores how we learn and master a new skill. He begins by asking “How do masters learn their skill?” To answer this, Gopnik becomes a dedicated student of several masters of their craft: a classical painter, a boxer, a dancing instructor, a driving instructor and others. He learns that their mastery is always a process of breaking down and building up. It is also a process of identifying and perfecting the small parts of a skill and combining them for an overall effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. Mastery almost always involves intentional imperfection as well. Gopnik’s biggest discovery is that mastery is far from rare. It is, in fact, commonplace if we just know where to look, from the parent who can whip up a professional pastry to the social worker who helps others work on and master their own demons.

Alex Mar explores a teenage girl’s shocking crime and its aftermath in the book “Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy.” One spring afternoon in 1985 in Gary, Indiana, a 15-year-old girl kills an elderly woman during a violent home invasion. Gary, Indiana had a history of racial tensions and white flight and the girl, Paula Cooper, is black, and her victim, Ruth Pelke, is a beloved, white Bible teacher. The case begins a feeding frenzy with the press. No one is surprised when Paula is sentenced to death though she was only in the 10th grade. The tide begins to shift when Ruth’s grandson Bill forgives the girl — against the wishes of his family — and campaigns to spare Paula’s life. As Paula waits on death row, her fate sparks debate in legal circles about the value of human life: What are we demanding when we call for justice? Is forgiveness an act of desperation or of bravery? Bill and Paula form a deep friendship and Bill finds others who have chosen to forgive after terrible violence. This story is about the will to live — to survive, to grow and to change — and about what we are willing to accept as justice.

Sanjeev Nanda edits the “Mayo Clinic A-Z Health Guide” which is a browsable, illustrated one-stop shop for reliable and up-to-date information on the signs, symptoms, tests, treatment and prevention of most common health conditions. The most common questions about allergies, breast cancer, hyperthyroidism, PTSD, shin splints, etcetera, can be found here. This second edition of the book features medical illustrations that add a bit of clarity to complex medical terms and concepts. The user-friendly design helps you easily navigate to find what you’re looking for, such as:

  • Questions like, “What is it?” and “What causes it?”
  • The latest knowledge of risk factors
  • Symptom checker, with a comprehensive list of common signs and symptoms
  • What tests to expect, to help you approach any doctor’s visit feeling prepared
  • Treatment, including updated medication options
  • Lifestyle tips for treatment and prevention in your daily life

“Once Upon a Tome: The Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller” is by Oliver Darkshire. Sotheran’s is one of the oldest bookshops in the world and boasts a weird and wonderful clientele, suspicious cabinets, unlabeled keys, poisoned books and some things that aren’t even books. It is overseen by an extremely eccentric apprentice named Oliver Darkshire. When Oliver went to apply for a job at Sotheran’s he was drawn to the smell of old books and the temptation of a management-approved afternoon nap. He is soon sorting stacks of first editions and placating the store’s resident ghost — the late Mr. Sotheran who was hit by a tram. He is a novice who begins having brushes with history (Dickens, the Titanic) and has come to love the joyous disorganization he finds around him. Oliver has also become fond of the giddily old-fashioned staff, whose mere glance may cause the computer to explode. The longer he stays, the more confident Oliver grows in his job and experiences. He shares trivia about ancient editions and explores the strange space that books occupy in our lives.

Javier Zamora is a young poet who tells his story of his migration from El Salvador to the United States in “Solito.” Javier was just 9 when his “adventure” of 3,000 miles began in El Salvador and went through Guatemala and Mexico and across the U.S. border. He has to leave behind his beloved aunt and grandparents so that he can reunite with his mother who left four years ago and a father that he barely remembers. Javier travels alone in a group of strangers led by a “coyote” who is hired to make sure they get to safety. At 9, all Javier can imagine is rushing into his parents’ arms, snuggling with them in bed and living under the same roof once again. What he cannot foresee are the perilous boat trips, relentless desert treks, pointed guns, arrests and lies and deceptions that await him. Nor can he know that the two weeks he expected to travel will morph into two harrowing months alongside fellow migrants who come to care for him like family. This gripping memoir of one child’s dangerous journey is only one of the millions of similar stories of those who cross the border every day.