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Friday, January 26, 2018

Recap: Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best Books for Adults 2017

Yesterday afternoon I attended this 100% free program put on by Chicago Public Library, emceed by Stephen Sposato, Manager of the Content Curation department at CPL. This is the department that oversees the centralized selection of materials for the nearly 80 branches in the system and heads up readers’ advisory, leading internal training and focusing on features for the website (staff picks, blogs, lists, etc.). As Stephen has been quoted here before, "In a nutshell, our department is all about selecting and promoting engaging and relevant content for a diverse and sophisticated city."

Best of the Best is a CPL brand that goes back to the 19080s on the Children’s side of things, but Stephen worked with Andrew Medlar, Assistant Chief, Technology, Content and Innovation a few years ago to get it up and going for adults too. 

The list was announced back at the end of 2017 to much fanfare, but yesterday, Stephen and his team of adult librarians from all over the system came together to celebrate the stories that our neighbors crave and to encourage these titles to be shared throughout the CPL system and across the region.

The event was meant to educate as many CPL staff from across the system as possible about these titles and how to suggest them to readers, but they also welcomed anyone from any library in the area who could make it. I jumped at the chance to hang out and listen to others talk books all afternoon.

As Stephen said, “It’s Readers' Advisory Heaven.” After attending, I concur.

Before they began sharing the books with everyone assembled, Stephen presented the criteria they used to put books on the Best of the Best List. The titles must have:
  • Strong publisher commitment behind them- this means the titles will be available in enough numbers that CPL could easily add them to their collections.
  • Critical Support
  • Audience Response-- do readers actually like them, place holds, give good scores on Goodreads?
  • Staff response-- Can our staff engage with these books?
But those criteria are fairly standard. CPL doesn’t want this lis to mimic all the other best lists out there. They want it to reflect Chicago and its people. So to the end, here are a few more criteria they used:
  • Local relevance
  • Diversity of voices and subjects- to reflect the diversity of our city
  • Range of literacy levels- not only high brow titles
  • Staff Recommendations- staff from all over the system can suggest books to be considered for the list based on their personal reading and interaction with patrons from their local branches.
Stephen also made a “side note” about the "Top 10” designated titles. They do get the most attention so CPL makes sure that those “Top 10” as a whole represent the breadth of the entire list. Also these are the only titles which there are copies at every single branch.

Then Stephen reminded the group that this list is a wonderful RA tool but it is not the be all and end all of titles you can suggest. He continued:
  • RA is about helping your patrons find reading that they will enjoy. This list is a good place to start, but it’s okay if none of these books fit the reader in front of you.
  • It’s not only forcing on them what we think is the best. This is a guide to some titles that the staff has worked hard to gather as “best” options.
  • This list is great for displays in branches, online, and as a resource at the desk
In these opening comments I loved how Stephen not only explained what the criteria were, but also reminded everyone gathered that the CPL staff as a whole, not just his department, made this best list. It truly was a CPL proper list, not just a few people at CPL list. This was further reflected in how the books were presented, as staff were called up to read the annotations they wrote for the book. Those who couldn’t be there had their annotations read by someone else, but the credit was given to the person [and their branch] who did the work.

You can click here for the full Best of the Best list, and if you go into the specific books, you can see those annotations for yourself.

From my standpoint as an audience member, I loved hearing all of the different book talks. Each contributor had a different voice and shared different aspects of the book than I might have. I loved hearing about the books I hadn’t read, or even heard of, in some case, but I also learned the most from the annotations of the books I did know about or had read. I heard a different version of those books, information that will help me help more readers.

Also, it was such a treat to hear about backlist titles-- books that are already out. In our line of work we spend so much time hearing publishers tell us about the books that are about to come, but rarely do we get to go back and talk about the books that were. More people should do this. What a great continuing education opportunity. It nourishes our book loving souls, yes, but talking about books that are out and have proven themselves through the criteria above means that we can actually hand these to patrons right now...not in 3 months. It makes so much sense, yet it is rarely done.

Also, the CE opportunities for the staff were on full display here too. You could see that this entire process of choosing and talking about the “best of the best” was a learning experience for all staff who were involved. They were energized to share these titles and the people in the audience were excited to see their coworkers sharing their knowledge. Everyone was learning from each other, everyone participated in some way, and everyone can use the knowledge as they go back to their branches.  It was CE that was engaging, fun and useful. Yay.

One last thing before I get to the titles themselves. While the official CPL Best of the Best Books 2017-Adults as seen here is in simple alphabetical order by title, Stephen wanted to present them in a way that would make the list easier to use with patrons. As he said he wanted to jumble the books up to “get them talking to each other.” 

So to that end, he grouped the books into the categories you will see below. They are not traditional library/book genres. And, fiction and nonfiction are put together in every category except the first one.

I have to say, this was my favorite thing about the entire day. It made the presentation more engaging and the book talks more useful because we were all forced to consider each title from a different angle than we might have in more traditional fiction vs nonfiction vs genre splits. It broke down the walls we construct between books and forced us all to think about the appeal before worrying about the classification. The appeal of the story maters more than the plot of genre. We know this, but we get hung up on classifications. Thanks Stephen for helping us to remember that.

Below I have listed the books from the overall list but here they are in the categories from the presentation. Any links you see are to my reviews where appropriate. [Ed note, as of 1/26 there are a few I have read or am reading but for which I do not have a review up yet; I will go back and add them.]

Fantasy & Romance: These categories are in the classical sense. These books are about the surreal, Gothic, and some are romantic. This is also the only category where every book is fiction:
  • Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
  • Reincarnation Blues by Michael Moore
  • Grief Cottage by Gail Goodwin
  • Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
  • An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole
  • Eleanor Elephant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  • Sourdough by Robin Sloan
Stephen also gave readalikes for each category with even more options. He will make them accessible for the staff to use at the desk. One that caught my eye, In The Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson. This is a wonderful addition to the list for the staff as they work with patrons.

Science and Technology: Fiction and Nonfiction 
  • Borne by Jeff Vandermeer 
  • Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt 
  • Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan
  • Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
    • Stephen notes this is a trend- slim books about “big topics” for adults
  • Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
  • Everybody Lies: Big Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
  • Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
Readalikes-- Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi caught my eye here.

History: again both fiction and nonfiction. I love this category the most. These books are all over the map in topic, not to mention that some are fiction and some are nonfiction, but all are history based. When you look at the list as a whole its breadth and usefulness to suggest a wide range of titles to patrons is awesome. Every category made me feel this elation, but in particular this one was my favorite.
  • Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
  • The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
  • What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women & the Food That Tells Their Stories by Laura Shapiro
  • Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston
  • Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford
  • City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty
    • Becky note-- I love that this one is under “History” and not “Fantasy”
  • Days Without End: A Novel by Sebastian Barry
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
  • The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
  • The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  • Human Acts  by Han Kang
  • Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory by Michael Korda
    • Great for people interested in the Oscars right now-- Dunkirk and Darkest Hour
  • Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy
  • Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
  • Hue 1968: A Turning Point fo the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden
    • long and exhaustive, tough at times, but perfect for your military buffs
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
    • Next book coming out soon
  • The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen
    • A doorstopper, but if you want to understand what is going on in Russia right now, read this. Demanding yet accessible.
  • Autumn by Ali Smith
  • American War by Omar El Akkad
    • Not history but going into future- possible history?
  • The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
  • Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young
Crime & Thrillers
  • The Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann
  • Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke
  • The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Dry by Jane Harper
    • Sequel coming soon!
  • The Last Mrs Parrish by Liv Constantine
  • The Lying Game by Ruth Ware
  • Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land
  • Defectors by Joseph Kanon
  • A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre
  • The Hunting Accident: A True Story of Crime and Poetry by David L. Carlson and Landis Blair
  • The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Life Stories
  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris
  • Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
    • slim, but written as only 1 sentence with no punctuation-- but there is plot- life reflection
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
  • Chester B. Himes: A Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson
    • pre-urban lit writer with a touch of pulp fiction
    • Important to separate the artist from the art. He was not a good person.
  • Leonardo DaVinci by Walter Isaacson
  • Grant by Ron Chernow
  • Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls
  • Ali: A Life by Jonathan Big
  • The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs
  • The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy
  • We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby
  • We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union
  • The Wrong Ways to Save Your Life: Essays by Megan Stielstra
    • Chicago
  • Rabbit: The Autobiography of Ms. Pat by Patricia Williams
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay
Social Issues
  • Body Horror: Capitalism, Fear, Misogymy, Jokes by Anne Elizabeth Moore
    • Coming to CPL 1/30 at 6pm
  • Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson
  • We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Becoming Ms. Burton by Susan Burton
  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregates America by Richard Rothstein
  • Electric Arches by Eve L. Ewing
    • Afro-futurism, poetry, Chicago-- major new voice
  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
  • Power by Naomi Alderman
  • Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Muchado
  • Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Kevin
  • Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen
    • It drew a lot of holds, which is uncommon for a foreign policy book but staff took notice and read it because patrons liked it
  • Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder
  • Gilded Cage by Vic James
    • Sequel coming soon
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
  • Hostage by Guy Delisle
    • NF, GN
  • Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli
    • trend: like political pamphlets from American Revolution; based on the form she had to help children immigrants from Mexico answer
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Family & Community
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
    • explores heavy themes with a light and graceful tread
  • An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and a Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
  • You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me: A Memoir by Sherman Alexie
  • Five-Carot Soul by James McBride
  • What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
  • The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott
  • This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
  • Setting Free the Kites by Alex George
  • Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett
  • Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller
  • Bear Town by Fredrik Backman
  • A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
    • novel of several generations of an African American family
  • The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Sneak Peek for 2018: Stephen put some covers on screen quickly, but not to preview them, more to just get the staff familiar with the titles and the covers so that when they see them in the coming months, the books will be a little familiar.

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