Archive for the “Books” Category

libfrVisitors to the Central Library often comment on the frieze in the main reading room that runs along the perimeter of the room just below the ceiling. It’s a partial reproduction of the friezes on the Parthenon, one of the finest surviving buildings of Classical Greece and a symbol of Western civilization.  Ever since this building opened a century ago, library staff have been telling anyone who asks that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic Procession, which concluded the annual festival of the same name held in honor of Athens’ patron deity, the goddess Athena.

Why have we been telling people this? Because everybody knows it, everybody in this case being Classical archaeologists and art historians.

But everybody might be wrong.

New York University archaeology professor Joan Connelly takes issue with this interpretation. First, if the Parthenon friezes do depict part of an annual religious festival, they would be unique. All other known Greek temple art depicts mythical events.  In her latest book, The Parthenon Enigma, she sets out an alternative theory that many other scholars find plausible.

First she calls our attention to the so-called “peplos panel,”* which is central Peplosto the notion that the frieze represents a religious procession. All we really know is that it shows a bearded man and a younger person of undetermined gender folding a cloth. Traditionally experts have maintained we are seeing the unfolding of the peplos, the new woolen robe draped over the statue of the goddess Athena when the procession arrived at the temple.

However, Connelly points out that the younger person is partly undressed. Partial nudity at such a sacred moment–the culmination of the Panathenaic festival–would have been considered sacrilegious. She also notes that if the frieze does depict the Panathenaic procession, key elements are missing, such as the woman carrying a reed basket who traditionally led the procession,  a fake ship bearing the peplos as if it were a sail, and representatives of Athens’ allies bearing tribute.

Connelly thinks the frieze depicts something else entirely, a horrific event from Athens’ early mythic history, retold in Euripides’ play Erechtheus.  Athens is at war with Eleusis.  The title character of the play, the king of Athens, consults the Delphic oracle, who tells  him Athens will be saved if he sacrifices one of his daughters. He returns home and tells his queen, Praxithea, who replies, “This city, though it bears a single name/Holds many people in it. Should I then/Destroy all these, when it is in my power/To give one girl to die on their behalf?” She’s saying yes, our daughter must die, for everyone’s sake.

So what we are seeing in the frieze, according to Connelly, is the imagined procession to a human sacrifice. And the so-called “peplos panel” depicts a young girl changing into the ritual garments she will wear when she dies.

Praxithea’s statement has been considered the most uncompromising expression of Athens’ nascent democratic ethos: no one, not even a princess, can stand in the way of the common good. Or to put it more brutally, a mother should not value her own child’s life over that of others.

discusWhether Connelly’s right or wrong, her argument opens the way to clearer  thinking about the Ancient Greeks, a people that those of us  in the West usually think of as our cultural forbears. A professor at my undergraduate school taught a survey course on the ancient world. He always began his lectures on Ancient Greece with the words, “And now we are coming home.” In other words, those Egyptians and Babylonians–their art, their architecture, their ways of thinking–they’re just all so different. But the Ancient Greeks, these are people of the past in whom we can see ourselves.

But only if we close our eyes to much of Greek life. We live in an optimistic society, where we expect a certain fairness in the world, and we tend to shield ourselves from many ugly facts, whether by turning our heads or turning off the news.

But the Greeks believed that cruel, capricious gods governed the world and they stared directly at the most hideous realities. They knew everything comes at a price. For example, one man’s leisure is bought with another man’s enslavement. They glory of a soldier like Achilles comes from the deaths of the men he slaughtered. And in the case of a foundation story of the most iconic Greek city, that community’s existence and all that followed–democracy, art, literature–comes at the most senseless of prices, the murder  of  a little girl.

The past is a country more foreign than we can ever grasp.


*Not included in the Central Library frieze.


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Check out staff suggestions in the Teen Room's Women's History Month display.

Check out staff suggestions in the Teen Room’s Women’s History Month display.

by Eileen and Sujei

March is Women’s History Month, and teens can find plenty of inspiration in the stacks of the SPL. Understanding the impact and achievements women have had in many fields – science, the arts, politics, religion, to name a few – is important for not only girls but also boys to keep in mind. What these women have accomplished have enhanced and enriched the lives of both men and women, boys and girls. And this impact isn’t limited to the stuffy old past either. Today’s women and girls are still working toward social and economic justice. Although women have come a long way this past century, women and girls around the world still struggle for rights to control their bodies, to be respected when they walk on the streets, to choose their careers or goals and other everyday actions.

Here we list some items to get you started on learning about women’s great contributions to world society – and some books about strong female characters to give you some inspiration. Also, check out the Teen Room display for staff picks of interesting movies, music and books.

Letters to a Young Feminist by Phyllis Chesler
Women’s rights : changing attitudes 1900-2000 by Kaye Stearman
Women’s rights by Jennifer A. Hurley
Keeping corner by Kashmira Sheth
Mujeres: crónica de una rebelión histórica by Juan María Alponte
The Yellow wallpaper and other writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Blueprints for building better girls: fiction by Elissa Schappell
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
How I live now by Meg Rosoff
Dueled by Elsie Chapman
Blood red road by Moira Young
If I stay by Gayle Forman
The miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Use your Minuteman Library Card to download audio and e-books for your device from the Minuteman Virtual Catalog. Here are some suggestions:
Full frontal feminism: a young woman’s guide to why feminism matters by Jessica Valenti
Almost astronauts: 13 women who dared to dream by Tanya Lee Stone
The gender knot: unraveling our patriarchal legacy by Allan G. Johnson
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
When you reach me by Rebecca Stead

If you need to do some research for a school paper, or just want to read about famous women without committing to a book, explore the Somerville Library databases. We suggest starting with the Biography in Context or Opposing Viewpoints databases.

And don’t hesitate to ask a librarian for help!


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asiaJoin us this Saturday at 2 pm for our next Muslim Journeys event: University of Michigan professor Stewart Gordon will lead a discussion of the his book When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors and Monks Who Created “The Riches of the East.”

  In school we learn the history of Europe: how civilization was in ruins after the fall of the Roman Empire, but slowly, over centuries, it staggered back to life: first through the crude but vibrant Middle Ages, then its flowering in the Renaissance.

During that  time Europe was slowly recreating itself, Asia was a hothouse of culture and science. Gordon examines this relatively unknown part of world history through the lives of men who traveled throughout the continent and left behind accounts of what they did and saw: a Chinese monk, a Jewish spice trader, an Indian warrior-king and a Moroccan jurist–to name a few.

You do not need to have the read the book to attend or be entertained by this fascinating history.


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Have you heard about the Digital Comic Museum? It’s a free online resource that allows users to download public domain golden age comics!  The goal of the project is to archive these comic books online and make them widely available. All files have been researched by DCM staff and users to make sure they are copyright free and in the public domain. It’s easy to register for a free account and start downloading and reading right away. That ought to keep you busy for a while!

Want more? Check out the 741.5s for some cool books about comics, golden age and otherwise. Here are just a few to whet your appetite – there are many more!

Foul Play!: the Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! by Grant Geissman

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones

1,000 Comic Books You Must Read by Tony Isabella

The Ten-Cent Plague: the Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hajdu


Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro

The Will Eisner Companion: the Pioneering Spirit of the Father of the Graphic Novel by N.C. Christopher Couch and Stephen Weiner

Comic Book Culture: an Illustrated History by Ron Goulart


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Neil deGrasse Tyson How much do I love astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson? Well for starters, I forgave him for the part he played in the demotion of Pluto.

Why do I love Neil deGrasse Tyson?  One reason is because he’s an eloquent advocate for science education (and for learning in general),  and a fierce warrior in the modern fight against ignorance.   Another is that he has such an abundant sense of what is wonderful in the universe and that he communicates that to anyone who is willing to listen.  Below are a few of my favorite Tyson quotes.

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” [source]

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” [source]

“Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not.” [source]

Many of Tyson’s books are available in Somerville and throughout the Minuteman Library Network.  Here are the past decade’s worth:

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

The Pluto Files: the Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet

Death by Black Hole: and Other Cosmic Quandaries

The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist

Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

One Universe: at Home in the Cosmos

Tyson also appears on TV frequently (he formerly hosted PBS’s Nova scienceNOW).  He has a new show coming out next month – an update of Carl Sagan‘s beloved 1980s series Cosmos.  I can hardly wait!


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In honor of Valentine’s day, we turn our attention to romance novels.  If you are a fan, you might know that there is an organization called Romance Writers of America which each year recognizes outstanding published romance novels and novellas with the RITA awards.  Below are lists of the 2013 finalists in a few of the categories.  There are many more.  For a complete list, click here.

BrideHistorical Romance
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter by Lori Austin
Bride by Mistake by Anne Gracie
Defiant by Pamela Clare
A Lady Never Surrenders by Sabrina Jeffries
The Recruit by Monica McCarty
A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean
Too Dangerous to Desire by Cara Elliott
Wedded in Sin by Jade Lee



Paranormal Romance
Angel in Chains by Cynthia Eden
Edge of Oblivion by J.T. Geissinger
Immortally Yours by Angie Fox
Lothaire by Kresley Cole
Mark of the Witch by Maggie Shayne
Moonglow by Kristen Callihan
Rogue Rider by Larissa Ione
Shadow’s Claim by Kresley Cole



Romantic Suspense
Celebrity in Death by J.D. Robb
Dead Heat by Bronwyn Parry
Don’t Cry for Me by Sharon Sala
Forged in Fire by Trish McCallan
Last Man Standing by Cindy Gerard
Scorched by Laura Griffin
Twisted by Laura Griffin
Vortex by Cherry Adair


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Yesterday’s Boston Globe had a front page story on tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old fish with limb-like fins and larger than average pelvic bones. Tiktaalik is of particular interest to scientists studying how animals transitioned from life in water to life on land in ancient times. If you would like to see a skeleton of this famous creature, along with a realistic-looking model of what it may have looked like in life, look no further than the Harvard Museum of Natural History, right next door in Cambridge. You can even get into the museum at a discounted price by taking advantage of the Library’s Museum Pass Program, which is generously funded by the Friends of the Library – thank you Friends!

Want to read more about prehistoric beasts? Check out the Dewey 560s, which happens to be one of the coolest nonfiction sections in the Library. Here’s a sampling of what’s on offer, but of course there are many more – have a look for yourself!

Dinosaur Art book coverThe Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age by David Rains Wallace

Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart edited by Steve White

Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissues and Hard Science
by Phillip Manning

How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to be Forever by Jack Horner and James Gorman

The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man by Amir D. Aczel

Mammoth book coverLast Ape Standing: the Seven-Million Year Story of How and Why We Survived by Chip Walter

The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt by William Nothdurft with Josh Smith

Lucy’s Legacy: the Quest for Human Origins by Donald C. Johanson and Kate Wong

Mammoth: the Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant by Richard Stone

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek

Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History by Lowell Dingus

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs
by Gregory S. Paul

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight
by Pat Shipman

Time Traveler: in Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia by Michael Novacek

Trilobite!: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey


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The Second World War was an event that defies comprehension: the death, the physical destruction of cities, the upheaval of human lives, all happened on a scale so large it’s almost meaningless. I’ve read books about the Blitz, the Battle of Stalingrad, the fall of Berlin, all of which record the viewpoints and experiences of individuals, but the overall focus is on the big picture. Reading diaries of the time give you an altogether different viewpoint: life as it was lived, day by day, in a world falling apart.

Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) led a remarkable life. The simpleharold fact of being married to Vita Sackville-West would have earned him a place in the history books, but he was also a writer, a diplomat and a member of parliament. His diary is an excellent source on the Second World War from a British perspective. I especially enjoy the entries from 1940, when Britain stared disaster in the face. One day he writes that he expects a German invasion within a week;  another he’s gloating over the RAF’s stunning victories over the Luftwaffe. At times he writes casually about life during the Blitz: “we have tea and watch the Germans coming in wave after wave. There is fighting above our heads and we hear one or two aeroplanes zoom downwards. They flash like silver gnats in the air.” In another he writes sadly of a friend in the military who was killed in a bomb explosion: “They would not let [his wife] attend the funeral because there was so little left.”

In addition to compelling writing about the war, Nicolson’s diary also provides a fascinating (if often dislikable) glimpse into the mind of a Briton born to great privilege. He refers to the prime minister simply as “Winston” and the author of To the Lighthouse as “Virginia.” And mind-bogglingly, when he’s running for re-election to Parliament in 1945, he refuses to campaign: “Well, I just won’t do it. I  know that I am a good Member.”

As you can imagine, the voters didn’t send him back to Parliament.

ReckA very different view of life in wartime is provided by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen’s Diary of a Man in Despair.  He was a German aristocrat who hated the Nazis. He was genuinely horrified by the persecution of the Jews and by the way the people of Goethe and Beethoven had allowed themselves to be brainwashed so completely.  But his loathing of the Nazis has a perverse twist: he despises Hitler and his followers not just because they’re fascists, but because of their lower-class origins.  In his diary he calls Hitler “a Machiavelli for chambermaids” and a “middle-class Antichrist.” He’s a reactionary who longs for a past that never was: when men like him lived “authentically” on the land surrounded by a loyal peasantry. But he’s much more empathetic when he rails against the danger rampant industrialization poses to Germany’s natural and cultural resources: “What price a forest if the ‘national’ interest calls for a cellulose factory? Or a cathedral that stands in the way of an autobahn?” And in the entries he wrote after German armies conquered most of Europe, Reck-Malleczewen’s  hatred for what his country has become is almost palpable: “every nation normally puts its demons, its delusions, its impossible desires into the cellars and vaults of its unconscious. Germany has reversed the process…The language one hears, the talk in the coffee-houses…makes the blood run cold.”

More posts about diaries in the new year.


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There’s a paradox to diaries. They’re the most private of books, the record of the thoughts and desires  the author can’t or won’t speak aloud, writing never shown to anyone else. And yet surely every writer has a desire to be read? It’s telling that Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), the author of the granddaddy of tell-all diaries, had the pages bound and listed in the catalog of his library. He wrote the diary in a type of shorthand, but left a key  in his library as well.

The best diaries offer the same pleasures as excellent realist fiction: seeing another human being’s oddest quirks and most troubling flaws, sharing in their private joys and their deepest fears. Other diaries offer inimitable records of times long gone and places that have since changed beyond recognition.  The Minuteman Library Network’s collection includes diaries by fascinating people, some famous, some not–revealing what flawed, compelling, inspiring creatures humans can be.

PepysFirst, the aformentioned Pepys. Pepys was a civil servant in the Admiralty, a Member of Parliament, and a breathtakingly blunt man. For example, he complains in one diary entry that his arm is sore from beating a servant.  In another, he recounts an incident at the theater very revealing of daily life in Restoration London and of Pepys himself: “A lady spit backward upon me by a mistake, not seeing me, but after seeing her to be a very pretty lady, I was not troubled at it at all .”

His diary is a catalog of his foibles, philanderings, feelings and arguably one of the most enjoyable books of all time.   Some of the entries are just good fun snark, as in his eleven-word review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream “the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life,” others, such as his eyewitness account of the coronation of Charles II, are windows into history.  And still others reveal what a weird guy he could be.  When the embalmed body of Queen Catherine of Valois (1401-1437)  was on display in Westminster Abbey, Pepys went to see it, and unlike other tourists, he didn’t just look. He bent down and kissed the corpse on the mouth, noting in his diary, “this my birthday and I did kiss a Queen.”

Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977) was the single mother of three children living in carolinaone of the favelas (shantytowns) of Sao Paulo.  She supported herself and her children by rummaging through garbage for things she could sell. They lived in a tin and cardboard shack. They had no plumbing. One water spigot was the only source of clean water for over 500 people.

However, Carolina had one stroke of good luck: when she was a little girl a wealthy landowner offered to pay the school fees of all the girls in her neighborhood if they wanted to go. She went long enough to learn to read and write. Literacy gave her a way to vent her frustrations, a way to purge some of her misery. She often found notebooks and pencils in the garbage, and began writing about her life.  Her diary, Child of the Dark,  records how hard she has to struggle to get even the most basic necessities (“I got up at five to get water….I went past the canning factory and found a few tomatoes. When the manager saw me he began to swear at me. But the poor must pretend that they can’t hear.”)

But it’s in less prosaic passages that the reader begins to truly feel her misery:

“I dreamt I was an angel. I put stars in my hands and played with them.  They danced around me and made a luminous path. When I work I thought: I’m so poor. I can’t afford to go to a play so God sends me these dreams for my aching soul.”

When Child of the Dark first appeared in English the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune called it, “A haunting chronicle.” The reviewer for the New York Times described it as, “Both an ugly book and a touchingly beautiful book…a strangely observant account of sheer misery.”

More diaries to come. Stay tuned…


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oswaldThe assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963  still haunts our collective imagination, and rightly so.  It was the moment when the entire nation was forced to confront the violence endemic to American life, when people sitting in their own homes watched murder happen. Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 was one of the popular books of 2011. Twenty-five years after nomination for the National Book Award, Don DeLillo’s Libra still  provokes reflection.

References both serious and comic to the murder abound in popular culture. One of the most talked-about episodes of Mad Men tried to recapture the horrified bewilderment of Nov. 22 and its aftermath. The assassination crops up everywhere, from lyrics by They Might Be Giants (“I remember the book depository where they crowned the king of Cuba”) to The Seinfeld episode “The Boyfriend,” to The X-Files’ “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man.”

There are myriad retellings, explorations and evocations of that day. I recommend the books Six Seconds in Dallas, Case ClosedMrs. Paine’s Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy and the American Experience documentary Oswald’s Ghost.

People are still trying to make sense of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963. One way they do that is to believe in conspiracy theories: It was the CIA, or Castro, or LBJ.  Author Fred Kaplan explains why all of those theories are nonsense.

Two years ago, Errol Morris presented the solution to one of the most persistent mysteries surrounding the grassy knoll, who was umbrella man?  

The John  F. Kennedy Library and Museum will hold a tribute to JFK this afternoon. Details are here.

If you’re more interested in Kennedy’s life and career than in how it ended, take advantage of the library’s pass to the museum and visit in the near future.



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