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3 Kansas City bookworms share fresh recommendations for spring reading

Seven books displayed on a table.
Elizabeth Ruiz

These reading lists include a comic mystery that will appeal to fans of "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion," a Civil Rights trilogy and classics from Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.

With spring around the corner, it's almost time to take books outside to patios and porches.

If you're looking for literature worthy of your time, Up To Date's panel of avid readers — author Steve Paul; Kansas City Public Library director of readers' services Kaite Stover; and English Department chair at The Barstow School Mark Luce — have curated a list of their old an new favorites. (They also suggest looking at the Washington Post and New York Times book reviews and libraryread.org.)

Steve Paul's recommendations

"Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century" (Random House) by Jennifer Homans. Biography.

An expert and highly readable biography of a cultural icon. From its first sentence onward, this book is wonderfully written and displays a convincing authority as Homans, a dance critic for The New Yorker, lays out Balanchine’s character in the face of secrets and mysteries beginning at birth in czarist Russia. Anyone with an interest in American ballet, music and dance history will find meaningful morsels throughout and come away with a fresh understanding of this immensely influential and complicated figure.

"The White Mosque" (Catapult) by Sofia Samatar. A Memoir.

A writer’s journey into little-known corners of her ancestry informs her identity as a bi-racial woman who grew up in the Mennonite faith. She evokes an endearing, poetic voice as she takes the reader outside of herself into history, philosophy, and arduous travel into remote Central Asia. A careful observer of detail, Samatar builds her exploratory narrative around the spine of a travel essay, in which she attempts to follow what is known as the Mennonites’ Great Trek through Central Asia in the 1800s in hopes of experiencing the Rapture. Her voice, often self-deprecating and unsure of herself and sometimes humorous, adds to the attraction.

"Easy Beauty: A Memoir" (Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster) by Chloé Cooper Jones. A Memoir.

Unexpectedly absorbing, this speaks to the power of surprise when entering a book you know nothing about. This is a unique personal story, shaped around the physical abnormality of the author’s body and enriched by tough family situations and by intentional travel she undertakes as a brilliant academic, philosopher, and freelance journalist. Cooper Jones, who has some roots in Tonganoxie, Kansas, draws on philosopher and literary wisdom, putting her own shifting feelings and mindscape in context. She unfurls the story with a brilliant narrative plan, flitting through time, teasing and connecting experiences and reflections with abrupt shifts, cliffhangers and echoing imagery. Readers will encounter thoughts about beauty in art, beauty in life, beauty in tennis, of 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’s Hughes’ memoir of growing up in Kansas and elsewhere and emerging as a poet in the “jazz age” of the 1920s. Hughes’s experiences as a freighter crewman and a kitchen worker are stark, entertaining and enlightening as he unflinchingly writes about race, Jim Crow, and social and economic inequality, which, as we know, are topics as current as they come. I was particularly struck by some of the exquisite observations and writing he serves up regarding his travels to Africa and his early days in Paris and Harlem. 

Kaite Stover's recommendations

"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." Fans of graphic novels will adore the active, colorful and expressive art that pulsates off the page. If the whole book moves like a storyboard for a movie of epic proportions, then you’re getting the right feel for Fielder’s work: He is also a filmmaker with his brother. This book is for fans of the recent film "Three Thousand Years of Longing," Janelle Monae’s "The Memory Librarian" short story collection, and expansive storytelling proving pictures can do what words cannot.

"Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-Pop" (W.W. Norton) by Martin Puchner. Nonfiction.

Harvard professor Puchner considers culture from cave paintings, Greek tragedies and the arts in Egypt, China, Europe and South America right up to the present day, all from diverse perspectives. Puchner chronicles the ways we have discovered, rediscovered, destroyed, fabricated, manipulated, syncretized, erased and preserved the wisdom and cultures of those who have come before us. An exhilarating roller coaster ride through the culture of humanity. Yes, it’s speedy, but it’s incisive and inclusive. Everything new is interacting 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 high achievers, have killed more than once," says Ernie, who acknowledges up front the recent trend in crime fiction for narrators such as himself who are unreliable. He self-publishes how-to books for aspiring authors. Or, as another character observes, "You write books about how to write books that you've never written, bought by people who will never write one." A welcome break for fans of serious crime fiction, this sardonic comic mystery is for fans of "Knives Out" and "Glass Onion." Sure, you may not figure it out until the very end, but you’ll have a great time getting there.

"The Phantom Tollbooth" (Knopf) by Norman Juster. Middle grade classic.

According to the Kansas City Public Library's description, "Milo, a young boy with little interest in anything, takes a trip through the Phantom Tollbooth to the Lands Beyond where he meets an enchanting cast of characters that teaches him the importance of words, numbers, ideas, creativity, and enthusiasm for life." I made a promise to myself to read a kids book and all my friends in children’s services gasp when I tell them I’ve never read this one. Norton Juster died in 2021, which prompted me to read it. So far it’s exceeding my expectations, and it’s smarter and wittier than I expected. It may be a kids book but it’s great for adults, too. I’m loving the illustrations and the word play. It’s a delight.

Mark Luce's recommendations

"Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany" (Nan A. Talese) by Graeme Gibson. Nonfiction.

Canadian novelist and long-time partner of Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson was an avid birdwatcher, traversing the globe in search of sightings. In this joyful collection, Gibson mixes personal stories with an assortment of excerpts, poems and pictures. While I don’t have it by my bedside, I have found late-night quiet comfort learning about various birds in Gibson’s smart prose and impeccable editorial decisions.

"The Tempest" (Penguin Random House) by William Shakespeare. Fiction

This summer the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival will feature the Bard’s final play (it’s also running at 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 play about plays, or as a super cool wizard story, "The Tempest" allows art to enchant.

"Mrs. Dalloway" (Mariner Books) by Virginia Woolf. Fiction

Clarissa Dalloway might buy the flowers for the party herself, but in the rest of the novel she grapples with her past, her marriage and her own shortcomings. Woolf writes with richness and precision, capturing in her inimitable a stream-of-consciousness questions 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 to the celebration of the Voting Rights Act. We see the Georgia legislator as a child inspired by a comic book about Martin Luther King, Jr., as a college student organizing protests and as a 25-year-old man on the receiving end of batons during the March on Selma. This award-winning autobiography is a profound look at the Civil Rights Movement. 

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
As a producer for Up To Date, my goal is to inform our audience by curating interesting and important conversations with reliable sources and individuals directly affected by a topic or issue. I strive for our program to be a place that hosts impactful conversations, providing our audience with greater knowledge, intrigue, compassion and entertainment. Contact me at elizabeth@kcur.org or on Twitter at @er_bentley_ruiz.
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