Archive for the “Books” Category

graham-joyce  I’m sad to learn that Graham Joyce is dead. He had been suffering from lymphoma for over a year. It’s odd: if you had asked me recently to name my favorite authors, his name would never have come to mind. I never put any of his titles on my list when I took part in the Facebook “10 Books That Have Stayed with You” meme. And yet….whenever I pick up a novel of his, I don’t get anything else done. I simply cannot put down a Graham Joyce novel until I’ve finished it. His novels are “speculative fiction,” what some people would call fantasies but I would call contemporary fairy tales. And when I say “fairy tales” I don’t mean silly Disneyfied garbage, I mean fairy tales in the Grimm or Andersen sense,  stories that use the fantastic to illuminate reality: the pangs of growing up, how much love can hurt, the essential unknowability of other people.

I first became aware of Joyce’s work when a friend aggressively urged me toothfairyto read a novel called The Tooth Fairy. Now the traditional concept of the tooth fairy is bizarre enough: a creature that visits in the middle of the night, takes small parts of your body, and leaves some spare change.  The title character of this novel is even stranger. The scaly, smelly creature that visits young Sam Southall in the dead of night is jealous, vindictive, and protective all at once, taking young Sam on a journey of terrors and passions that last throughout his adolescence. This strange, chilling novel won the 1997 British Fantasy Award.

Another of Joyce’s novels, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, begins with the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Tara Martin. The loss psychologically destroys her parents: overnight these confident, capable adults become “frail, powerless, elderly and lost.” It also tears a permanent rift between Tara’s brother Peter and his best friend, Tara’s boyfriend Richie. The police believe Richie murdered Tara and he never completely recovers either from his treatment by the police or the loss of his friend. Then on Christmas Day twenty years later Tara walks into the Martin home. And she hasn’t aged at all.  The turmoil her reappearance causes is almost as great as that created by her vanishing. Joyce relates this eerie, unsettling story in his typically subtle, crisp prose.

factsThe Facts of Life: Frank Vine is born in Coventry, England early in World War II, the result of his  mother Cassie’s one-night stand with a soldier. It soon becomes apparent to his grandmother, the clan matriarch, that Frank has a talent that afflicts certain members of the Vine family in each generation: a sixth sense. Little Frank sees things other people don’t, says names he shouldn’t know, and from his earliest years has occasional meetings with someone he calls “The Man Behind the Glass.” But as with many of Graham’s other books, this supernatural element is less an engine that drives the plot than it is a catalyst that intensifies the tensions, fears and desires that grip the other characters. This is a story of Frank’s extended family, how they get on from day-to-day at the height of the Blitz and through the rest of the war and then navigate the pitfalls and opportunities of life in postwar Britain.

If you’re curious to read Graham Joyce, there’s a complete list of his books here. The Guardian’s tribute to him is here. And here, by Joyce himself, is an account of one of the last days of his life and a meditation on  what he called the “shocking clarity” of cancer.


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A tip of the hat to Jenny at Robbins Library in Arlington for pointing out that apple-picking season is upon us and that the Boston Globe has a handy map of farms that allow you to pick your own apples.  And when planning your apple-picking trip, place a request for Somerville Public Library cookbooks such as A Basket of Apples or  The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.

And if you have a perverse affection for those out-of-date educational films many of us were subjected to in elementary school, you might enjoy the 1950s gem Apples: From Seedling to Market:


Sadly, it’s not hosted by Troy McClure.

If you think you’ve got some gaps in your apple knowledge that need filling, read this collection of useful information about apples from Penn State Extension  here.

And when you’re all done with your apple-picking, take a moment to read the last word on the subject:


After Apple-Picking

by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

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whalesharkSince Monday’s post on Shark Week, I’ve received quite a few comments about the Discovery Channel’s sensationalist and inaccurate Shark Week programming.  And rightly so. Shark Week producers have actually lied to scientists to get them to appear in programming, and  Discovery airs “documentaries” in which most of the material is made up.

So don’t watch Discovery Channel.

And whatever you do, don’t let Shark Week stop being about the sharks.

The National Geographic Channel has some level-headed and scientifically informed (albeit dramatically titled) programming. And over on Facebook a friend posted “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Shark Week” (thanks, Sarah).

At SPL you can pick up books such as Shark Chronicles, in which the authors do justice to the inherent fascination of these misunderstood creatures.



And check out this short video from the PBS series It’s Okay to Be Smart: “What if There Were No Sharks?:”







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Hoopla is here! We are delighted to offer this new service that allows Somerville patrons free access to thousands of movies, television shows, music albums, and audiobooks for mobile devices and computers.

To start using Hoopla, download the free digital mobile app on your Android or iOS device or visit Then, begin enjoying titles from major Hollywood studios, record companies, and publishers. Titles can be borrowed for instant streaming or for temporary downloading to smartphones, tablets, computers, and Apple TV. Hoopla is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Best of all, there’s no waiting for popular titles and the service’s automatic return feature eliminates late fees.

To get to the Library’s Hoopla page, go to the catalog, click on databases, then scroll down the alphabetical list until you get to Hoopla.


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The next installment in the “Muslim Journeys” book series at the Somerville Public Library will take place on Thursday, July 31 with a discussion of Why the West Fears Islam and Acts of Faith at 6:30 p.m.

In recent years the presence of growing Muslim populations in Western democracies has sparked fierce debate on issues ranging from what constitutes genuine assimilation to whether Islam poses an existential threat.

CesariJocelyne Cesari, Director of Harvard University’s Islam in the West program and lecturer in Islamic Studies at Harvard Divinity School, will lead a talk on these issues as explored in her book, Why the West Fears Islam, and Interfaith Youth Core Founder Ebo Patel’s autobiographical work, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for a Soul of a Generation. The discussion is free and open to the public.

We are able to offer this series thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. We are grateful for their generosity.


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heywoodBoston University professor Linda Heyw0od gave a great talk last night on Prince Among Slaves, one of the titles in our Muslim Journeys bookshelf. Prince is the story of Abdul Rahman, a Fulbe prince captured and sold into slavery in Mississippi and his quest for freedom. The book is also a fascinating portrait of antebellum Natchez, the heart of the “Cotton Kingdom.” Dr. Heywood is a  dynamic speaker who  did a fabulous job placing the events and people of the book in their historical context, including the history of slavery in Boston.

The audience was very engaged and had a lot of questions. Dr. Heywood even took email addresses from audience members so she could follow up on the questions that deserved more thorough answers than she was able to give on the spot.

And FYI, we have multiple copies of the book available for checkout, as well as copies of a documentary on Rhaman’s life.

Thanks to Dr. Heywood, the ALA and the NEH, and everyone who attended.


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Join us at the Central Library Thursday July 17 at 7 pm when Boston University Professor Linda Heywood will give a talk on the groundbreaking heywoodhistorical work Prince Among Slaves, the story of an African Muslim prince’s enslavement in antebellum America and his quest for his freedom and that of his family. Even if you haven’t read the book, you should come. It should be a fascinating evening.

Abdul Rahman was 26 when he was abducted in the present-day Republic of Guinea and sent on a slave ship to the Americas. Like many enslaved Africans, he ended up in Natchez, Mississippi, the heart of  “the Cotton Kingdom.” After years of enslavement under the name “Prince,” during which he became the overseer of his master’s plantation, something utterly unexpected happened: a white man stopped him on the streets of Natchez, shouted his African name, and embraced him: John princeCox, an Irish doctor whose life Abdul Rahman had saved years ago in Africa, happened to be in Natchez and recognized him.  Cox immediately began a years-long campaign to win Rahman’s freedom that gained national attention. In the course of this campaign journalists and intellectuals visited and questioned Rahman, and what they learned upended white American assumptions about Africans: a literate prince, well-versed in Arabic literature, who was also a paragon of honesty and self-discipline, conflicted with the white prejudices that justified slavery.

We’re lucky to have Linda Heywood as our guide to this fascinating subject. A noted historian of New World slavery, Dr. Heywood has served as a consultant for museum exhibits at the Smithsonian and Jamestown, has appeared in the PBS series African American Lives, and was a consultant for the PBS series Africans in Latin America.

This program is made possible by a Muslim Journeys grant awarded to the Library by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association.  We are grateful for their generosity.



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Some sources of Book Reviews

Some sources of Book Reviews

2014 is half over and there are more great books out there than ever! How do you choose what books to read? There are so many review sites out there and they all have different recommendations with different criteria of what is the “best”. Here are some of the sites I use to help me decide – because there is nothing worse than being on a road trip with a bad book (unless you have squabbling kids which takes the cake:)

  1. The Old Standby – NY Times Book Review: Here you will find the weekly tally of books that have sold the best throughout the country. What I like about this site is, one, it has been around forever and two, bestsellers are broken down into categories which include hardcover, paperback, eBook and children’s books. The thing I don’t like about this site is that it only goes by what’s been sold that week.
  2. – Here you can find what’s hot, what’s been sold, what’s coming. You can find books by subject, Kindle Top Sellers, Best eBooks of 2014 so far, Kindle Selects, summer reading for kids, Editor’s picks, and so much more. Does this amount to what you want to read? Maybe not, but it’s a great source of information on what’s out there and popular.
  3. Want to read a classic? The best place for this is Project Gutenberg. Here you can download classic non-copyrighted books for free! Or you can view lists of the Top 100 Ebooks by Title, Author, or timeframe (what’s the top 100 from last week or within the last 30 days). This is my first stop when I want to catch up on a book which I know I should have read but haven’t gotten around to.
  4. Goodreads is a totally reader driven review site (although it was recently bought out by Amazon, but that’s a different post). If you want to know what other readers are reading, this is the place. I especially like the Top 200 of 2014 – which is curiously different from most other review sites on this list:) I also like finding like-minded readers and following their recommendations. Here you can join the conversation, make your own lists and find hidden gems.

There are so many others but I’ll leave you with a couple more of my favorites: LibraryThing (also an online reader site) and FantasticFiction (which is not a review site but an invaluable resource to me). Once you decide what you want to read, remember that you can find these books at your local library. Happy Reading!


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A six-year-old is attacked by a tiger daily when he gets home from school.  He tries to get out of homework by faking amnesia.  At night he battles the bathtub suds monster as his tyrannical parents force him to adopt their bourgeois hygiene standards. He has marvelous adventures as he transforms himself into a pteranodon, Spaceman Spiff, or a bloodthirsty deity demanding human sacrifice, all the while accompanied by his combative tiger companion, who…strangely….looks like a child’s stuffed animal to everyone else.


I’m talking, of course, about Calvin, the sandy-haired psychotic who lives in an unnamed middle-American suburb with Hobbes, a tiger who’s occasionally a  lone voice of reason in Calvin’s world but more often his partner in silliness. For ten years (1985-1995) readers all over the world opened their daily papers to laugh at Calvin’s imaginative antics, and the reactions of not only his long-suffering parents, but also the completely sane Susie, Calvin’s classmate and sometimes friend. Being a fairly normal girl, Susie is taken aback at times by Calvin’s behavior, like when she’s playing  doctor with him and he demands that she submit to a lobotomy.


wattersonAll of us who loved Calvin and Hobbes owe those hours of joy to artist Bill Watterson, who turns 56 today.  Watterson is an appealing and unusual character. Unlike many other cartoonists, he turned down offers to merchandize the strip’s characters.  And he never had any interest in animations of Calvin and Hobbes.He just wanted to create a good comic strip, nothing more.

So that’s what he did for ten years. Then he stopped with a brief announcement that he felt he had gone as far as he could artistically with the medium. Then he disappeared (Time once included him in list of America’s ten most reclusive celebrities). He was out of the public eye until last month, when The Washington Post revealed that Watterson contributed for a very brief period to the strip Pearls before Swine.

But back to Calvin and Hobbes.  I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the strip is just a version of Dennis the Menace that’s actually clever and funny. Watterson took the tropes of the mischievous boy and the imaginary friend and gave them a metaphysical depth.  The catalyst for much of the strip’s action is a character who exists *only* to  Calvin. With  flights of comic genius and superlative artwork, Watterson is constantly teasing us with one of the most profound and unsettling of questions, “What’s real?”



Along with the brilliant humor and philosophical games, Watterson recreated all the delights and terrors of being so young. Calvin’s the age when we’re in the midst of discovering what a vibrant, beautiful place the world can be. But it’s also the age we start to learn about death and loss. When we learn about the sadness out there that can and will tinge every joy we’ll ever know.


Calvin and Hobbes was a ten-year-long crazed  love letter to childhood.

And fortunately it’s still out there for us. All three branches have Calvin and Hobbes collections on the shelves (the Central Library has them in Spanish and French as well as English). And some kind soul in Canada is posting a new Calvin and Hobbes strip every day on tumblr.



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Yes, it’s a sequel post. After my coworker wrote his piece about good books to read at the beach last week, I began thinking about what I believe to be a good beach read.

Being a non-beach-goer, my first thought was that the better a beach book it is, the more sand it has in its book jacket (how I usually ID good beach reads when reshelving books – hah!), but quickly focused on the following attributes: totally engrossing and very difficult to put down and something fairly light (although there are some who like a heavier read on vacation). However, my picks are pretty quick, easy reads.

So without further ado, here are some of my beach read picks:

Tales of the City and its sequels – Beginning in groovy 1970s San Francisco, Armistead Maupin’s nine TotC books TalesoftheCity-US_1st_editionfollow a group of friends, both gay and straight, as they have many jaw-dropping, soap opera-type adventures. Chapters are very short, because the first book was initially serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle. The first three books have been made into miniseries; I have only seen the first two and really enjoyed them. So you’ll have something to watch when you get back from vacation.

Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris (first book, Dead Until Dark) – Some of you may know that these books have been made into the HBO series True Blood, focusing on the telepathic waitress from Louisiana and her supernatural beaux. Even if you’re a fan of the TV series, let me assure you that the book series has very little in common with HBO’s interpretation, so read away and don’t worry about spoilers. The 13 books in this series is perfect for fans of supernatural romance/mystery. It gets a little ridiculous near the end of the series, but it’s mostly a delicious, bloody confection to sink your fangs into.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton – This is also my pick for the book that always makes me LOL. When reading this book in ballfourpublic places, I have to smother my giggles at the exploits of Jim and his fellow baseball players, trying to hang on to their spots on the big league roster. In addition to being hilarious, there are also parts of the book that are quite inspirational as well. Whenever I am afraid to take a chance, I remember Jim’s words: “Don’t be afraid to climb those golden stairs.” I’ve read and reread this book many times since I first read it in high school (thanks, Dad), and it never gets stale. Even if you’re not a sports fan, pick up this book, get some laughs and feel as if you can take on the world – or at least make your mark on your little corner of it.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – I am not a fan of westerns by any means, but this epic had me hooked immediately. In 1876, two old friends, ex-Texas Rangers, decide to pull up stakes and drive their cattle to Montana to start the first cattle ranch in the area. On the way, they meet up with old loves and must navigate hostile Native Americans and other dangers. The many characters are portrayed incredibly realistically, and McMurtry keeps the action coming. This is also the first book in a four-book series, so there’s more to devour once you’re done with this one.


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