Archive for the “Books” Category

Marvin_the_Martian_by_raelynn36Does your kid want to make a Martian? Silly question–what kid wouldn’t? Be at the East Branch tomorrow with your children at 3:30 and Children’s Librarian Meghan Forsell will open her Ali Baba’s cave of craft supplies and help your kids make mini-Martians out of her wondrous trove of creative goods.




Then follow it up with dinner and a movie at the Central Library! marsattacksChildren’s Librarian Cathy Piantigini hosts a potluck dinner and an outdoor screening of the 2005 version of The War of the Worlds. This box-office smash hit about a Martian invasion of Earth stars Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, and features eye-popping special effects by Steven Spielberg.

The fun starts at 6:00 pm!


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Football fans are passionate. It happens at a young age. We get caught up in the emotional draw of a winning team. We support our favorite players and their teams – no matter what, and encourage them when they’ve fallen, whether literally on the field or off.

Football takes its toll, all the way from the professional sport, to colleges, high schools and even younger players. Injuries and concussions happen more than we want to admit. The lure and excitement sometimes makes us forget how brutal the game can be.

Thursday night at 7pm at the Central Library, Steve Almond will share his own experiences – his love of the game and the challenges he faced accepting the physical trauma the game promotes.

Steve Almond is a local author; he’s published several books, many of which can be found on our shelves, including his latest Against Football.  He’s also a regular correspondent on NPR and co-hosts the Dear Sugar radio program with Cheryl Strayed. His writing has been called thoughtful and provocative. We are excited to have him at the Somerville Public Library.

Thank you to the Friends of the Library for funding this free event.



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Oliver SacksOne of the greatest minds of our time left us yesterday. Oliver Sacks, award-winning neurologist and author, died of cancer. He was 82. He had been a practicing clinician as well as a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Columbia University. As a doctor he helped patients with mysterious intractable conditions. As a professor he taught innumerable physicians. But it was as a writer that he reached the most people. He was a longstanding contributor to The New Yorker and the author of over a dozen books in which he explained the mysteries of the brain and perception with clarity and compassion, introducing the general public to conditions such as Tourette’s and Asperger’s.  I read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat when I was around 22. The  title refers to a patient of Sacks’s who could no longer recognize people’s faces or even many common objects. And he really did mistake his wife for a hat.

The book upended my sense of reality. It’s one thing to know generally that our perceptions and our world can be altered forever by injury or disease. It’s quite another to get to know the individual experiences of people whose eyes, ears or even brains fail them on such a fundamental level.

Many people disapproved of Sacks’ writing on the grounds that he was exploiting the ill and disabled. Disability rights activist Tom Shakespeare called Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.” But to me his writing reflects a genuine concern for his subjects.

I envy those who haven’t yet read any of his works. You have a great intellectual and emotional journey ahead of you. In his book Seeing Voices, Sacks writes about the lives of the deaf. In An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, he profiles Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science who is also an autist, and one of the few people with autism who can articulate what it is like to live with that condition.

Sacks’ books are wonderful not just because he was a great writer and a kind doctor, but also because he was infused with a curiosity and passion for knowledge that was seemingly limitless. In Oaxaca Journal he writes about taking part in an American Fern Society expedition to a region of Southern Mexico that’s home to over 700 species of fern. Like everyone else in the group, he has a consuming interest in ferns, but he’s also fascinated by the ruins of pre-Hispanic Mexico, the sounds of village marketplaces, and the food, about which he writes, “‘Of the many new foods I have eaten in the past days, the grasshoppers have pleased me especially — crunchy, nutty, tasty and nutritious; they are usually fried and spiced.”

Sacks was also a weightlifter who at one time held the California state record for a full squat (600 pounds) and an avid diver and motorcyclist who rode with the Hell’s Angels to the Grand Canyon. He was such a versatile man. He reminds me of one of those Victorian polymaths who fascinated me as a teenager. I can imagine him traveling with Darwin on The Beagle, or helping Sir Richard Burton translate The Arabian Nights.

Here is his New York Times obituary. And  here is a nice tribute to him by journalist Xeni Jardin.

The world is a poorer place without him. But as long we have his books, we can still connect with his mind and heart.


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..for Thursday, August 27.

John-miltonBooks by John Milton are burned in London by the common hangman for his attacks on King Charles II. Related reading at Somerville Public Library: Royal Survivor: A Life of Charles II by Stephen Coote. Or if you’re in the mood for reading a really long poem, try Paradise Lost. I’ve always thought the list of fallen angels at the end of Book 1 would be a great source for cat names: Belial, Moloch, Leviathan….

The first Tarzan book, Tarzan of the Apes, was published by Grosset and Dunlap on this day in 1912. This story of a human baby raised by apes led to 25 sequels, innumerable comic books, two radio programs, at least one Saturday morning cartoon, many bad movies, and a parodic reference in Bloom County (Bill the Cat played the title role in the film Orangestoke: Legend of Bill, Lord of the Monkeys). Related reading at SPL: Tarzan at the Movies: A Pictorial History of More Than Fifty Years of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Legendary Hero by Gabe Essoe, or the Bloom County collection Night of the Mary Kay Commandos.

Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil and many other novels, was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on this day in 1929. Related reading at SPL: Rosemary’s Baby. Or request the movie adaptation from another library in the network. It’s a masterpiece of direction and acting, and is widely considered one of the best horror films ever amde.


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open_culture_blogOne of my favorite websites for the fascinating, the stimulating and the unexpected is OpenCulture. It has links to 1,100 free online courses and more than 1,000 MOOCs.You could (for example) take a course on the Federal Reserve and its role in economic crisis, learn digital photography, learn to code, or study the history of pre-Safavid Iran.

The site also has a collection of 700 free movies that’s a film lover’s delight: it includes Bottle Rocket*, Alexander Nevsky, and the Sir Patrick Stewart/David Tenant Hamlet.

The site also features a small but well-chosen library of  downloadable audiobooks and ebooks. But my favorite part of OpenCulture at the moment is the archival recordings and films. I love history and accents fascinate me: so it’s a double treat to hear the voices of long-dead writers for the first time. In the recordings of Borges lecturing at Harvard, his accent slides back and forth between Argentine Spanish and the British English he learned from his Staffordshire-born grandmother.  When F. Scott Fitzgerald reads from Othello, or Syliva Plath from Ariel, you can hear traces of that lost American accent we know from Katherine Hepburn movies and recordings of FDR speeches. Flannery O’Connor’s distinctive old-time Georgia drawl and sensitivity to language add power to her reading of one of her most disturbing stories, “A Good  Man is Hard to Find.”

And if you’re in the mood for book recommendations, you’ll be interested to learn that OpenCulture has book lists by (among others)  Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ernest Hemingway, Patti Smith and  Art Garfunkel.

And there’s so much more on OpenCulture: art reproductions, music, writing advice. Go and explore.

The Internet: it’s not just cat videos anymore.




*Wes Anderson’s first film.


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On this day in 1861 the last installment of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations was published in the weekly magazine All the Year Round. This novel of an orphan boy, of friendship and of obsessive love  is a departure from Dickens’ previous works: it’s darker, with many of the characters shown in a much more sinister, questioning light than in his earlier novels. Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin called it “delicate and frightening, funny, sorrowful, mysterious.”

1916: Sir Roger Casement (right) was hanged for treason in the Tower of London. Casement had been a member of the British Casementcolonial service and one of the first human rights investigators of modern times.  He won international praise for exposing the exploitation of workers in the Congo and Peru. He was also a secret advocate of Irish independence. During World War I he traveled to Germany to purchase weapons for Irish nationalists to use in an armed revolt against the United Kingdom. He was eventually exposed and arrested. Casement is the subject of a widely acclaimed novel by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, The Dream of the Celt. For a masterful nonfiction account of Casement and his peers, read Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923 by Roy Foster.

pjamesHappy Birthday to  P.D. James (1920-2014), the grande dame of twentieth-century mystery writers.  I cannot say enough good things about her novels featuring police commander Adam Dalgliesh: they have fascinating plots, compelling characters, and are infused with a dark psychological realism. Among my favorites are Devices and Desires and Death in Holy Orders.

On this day in 1846 a group of 87 settlers headed for California made the fateful decision to take a new route across the Sierra Nevada. Dubbed the “Donner Party” by historians, they spent the winter trapped by heavy snowfalls. 39 members of the party died. Many of them were eaten by the survivors. If you want to know more about this grisly episode of American history and the realities of white settlement of the West, I suggest The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride. For a more general history of Western settlement up to 1848, I suggest Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri.


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There’s still plenty of summer left regardless of all the Back to School merchandise and the (GASP!) snow blowers that appear to be creeping into the patio section of your local Target. Summer is my favorite time of year to relax with some great reading material. Here are a few recent selections of mine for you to consider.

The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman

Detective Jonathan Stride has his hands full with the mystery surrounding a supposed murder/suicide when a decade later he finds the lone survivor of the case, Cat Mateo in his home, dripping wet from what she describes to him as a narrow escape into the icy water of Lake Superior from an unknown pursuer. The fact that her clothes are bloodstained and her story questionable appears to be lost on the guilt ridden detective whose partner Maggie Bei must now work both sides of the case to satisfy her own doubts about the homeless teen, the lost decade, and Stride’s safety from the knife wielding, deeply damaged girl.

A fast pace and a steady introduction of characters may provide Stride (and the reader) with the key to helping Cat with her immediate threat and finally solving the case that he just couldn’t let go of involving the murder of her mother 10 years earlier.

There are additional novels if you enjoy the main character Detective Jonathan Stride, so check them out!

Bountiful: Recipes Inspired by Our Garden by Todd Porter and Diane Cu

I have a large backyard perennial garden, but during the long cold winter of 2015 my husband and I decided to dedicate a section of our yard to growing vegetables in raised beds – I could probably do a whole BiblioBites on the books we gobbled up to prepare our raised beds for the season, but that’s for another day! Suffice to say that good preparation makes for great results and so we are enjoying our home grown produce immensely! As every gardener knows once the initial crop is harvested and the thrill of “our first (fill in the veggie)” wears off, there’s still a lot of summer left and the produce keeps rolling in and so a cookbook like Bountiful is perfect for solid, easy to prepare dishes with accents on what’s ripe and ready. Let me start by telling you that authors Todd and Diane are multi-talented. They are the authors of the White on Rice Blog and are also food photographers. The recipes are easy to follow and you will have most of the produce/spices/seasonings and herbs either on hand, in your garden, CSA share or at your local farmers market. The multi-cultural culinary influence that this couple brings to food preparation has made book a “must purchase” for my personal collection.  Warning: the photographs of the food are so amazing you may find yourself turning the pages with a fork.

The Martian by Andy Weir

This book is the current Somerville Reads (our community reading program) selection.

True Confessions (Part 1) – ok, so truth be told, when I found out that the section committee chose a Sci-Fi story I groaned while reading the email announcing the book choice. My natural tendency for reading material very seldom (wait, since this is TRUE confessions ) NEVER leans toward Sci-Fi. So with a few planned days off, I decided to grab a copy and give it a try.

True Confessions (Part 2) – Who was it that said “You can’t judge a book by its cover?” and actually it’s not the cover in this case it’s the genre! This is SCIENCE-fiction. And well what do you know – I loved it!

Author Andy Weir’s original self-published story became an online phenomenon that led to print publication and a movie deal (soon to be released). The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars after a sequence of events during a huge dust storm forces the evacuation of the rest of the crew who presume he is dead, the victim of a satellite dish which becomes untethered during 150 mile an hour winds, which knocks him backwards down a hill and impales him with its antenna. This is a man vs nature vs impossible odds adventure that will captivate the reader while educating the lay person in “how to live vicariously through Mark Watney and survive on Mars.”

Weir is a brilliant scientist who just happens to have written a novel about space and in my opinion that makes all the difference. He has created a very human character whose survival instincts are pushed to the limit, and beyond his education and training. You will find yourself rooting for Mark, and as the story develops wondering how it will come to its conclusion. The last 20 pages are literally edge-of-your-seat. A perfect beach read!

The Martian circulation is gaining speed as the Somerville Reads Program begins its preliminary event planning so get on the waiting list, grab a copy, and enjoy this Sci-Fi selection even if it’s your first!

Other selections to consider:
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
Yes, Please! by Amy Poehler
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


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..for today, July 1.

1863: The Battle of Gettysburg begins, three bloody days that ended Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, which Lee had hoped would force the North to sue for peace. Union General George Meade’s army of 90,000 took on Lee’s invading force of 75,000 resulting in three days of grueling fighting that resulted in roughly 51,00o casualties and forced Lee to return to Virginia. The battle has inspired a number of award-winning books, including the eminently readable Gettysburg: The Last Invasion and  Twilight at Little Round Top. For a fictional treatment of Gettysburg, try Michael Shaara’s critically acclaimed novel The Killer Angels.


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scIt’s been a big week at the Supreme Court: the Affordable Care Act upheld, gay  marriage bans struck down, and a blow struck against housing discrimination.

The Supreme Court’s rulings have had a profound impact on American society: their decision in Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) ultimately ended legal school segregation; New York v. Sullivan (1964) established certain protections for the press.

The profundity of the Court’s influence is ironic given that when it Imacon Color Scannerwas established it was considered very much a junior branch of government. Some presidents felt free to ignore it all together. When the Supreme Court ruled that Indian tribes were sovereign nations (Worcester v. Georgia, 1832), Andrew Jackson supposedly said, “Justice Marshall has made his ruling, now let him enforce it,” and proceeded to force the entire Cherokee tribe out of its territory in the Southeastern US.

The Court didn’t even get a building of its own until 1935. Before that it met in a room in the House of Representatives.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Supreme Court (seriously, it’s more interesting than you might imagine) check out Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court. It’s a fascinating look at the personal and ideological conflicts between Obama and the Court during his first term.  Another book, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction is a sad but gripping book about the aftermath of the Civil War, our government’s betrayal of African-Americans, and the reprehensible role played by the Court in that betrayal. And finally I recommend mcone of my favorite works of intellectual history: The Metaphysical Club.  The book is only partially about the Supreme Court. The book’s title refers to a group of men who met regularly in Cambridge, Mass.  for a few months in 1872 to talk about ideas. Among them were William James, brother of Henry and father of modern psychology and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice. Holmes had a fascinating, original mind. One of the narrative threads in this book begins with the impact of Holmes’ Civil War service on his later judicial philosophy and ends forty years later with his dissent in U.S. v. Abrams–an opinion that laid the foundation for contemporary understanding of freedom of speech.

And if all that sounds like too much work for you, below is a 2009 sound clip from the NPR comedy/news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me in which Supreme Court Reporter Dahlia Lithwick plays “Not My Job.”



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