Archive for the “Books” Category
Posted by: Kevin in Authors, Books
It’s late October and Halloween will soon be upon us. Someone recently asked me to post about some of the more unusual materials in the Local History Collection. And the approaching seasonal celebration of the terrifying brought an item to mind: an 1832 reprinting of the 1693 book, Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather (1663-1728). Mather was a prominent Boston clergyman who wrote Wonders to defend the judges of the Salem witch trials of the previous year.
In addition to being a good Halloween tie-in, the book also gives me an occasion to acknowledge the work of one our patrons, Annmarie Ostrowski, a book conservator for Harvard Libraries and an all-around great human being. She did some volunteer repair work on our copy of Wonders, which is now in excellent condition.
Wonders of the Invisible World is part apologia (after participating in mass hysteria, the residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were having a case of fanatics’ remorse), part witch-hunting manual. In describing the steps the judges took in determining who was a witch, Mather was basically writing a how-to for finding the servants of the Devil. If somebody is accused of witchcraft, ask around the neighborhood. Do any “Persons of Credit and Honor” say they’ve seen the accused do anything unusual, such as lift something several times his body weight (say a huge barrel of molasses or a cannon)? Or appear in spectral form at someone’s bedside in the middle of the night? And if the accused is believed to be tormenting people with spells, bring his alleged victims into court to testify against him. If they can’t testify because they’re shrieking, crying or screaming, the most likely explanation is that the presence of a witch is causing them extreme pain, or that the Devil is torturing them to keep them from talking. Are they unable to recite the Lord’s Prayer? Also conduct a physical examination: the Devil marks his peeps. The satanic mark might be a blue spot on the skin. It might be a red spot. It might be a depression in the skin. Or it might be an extra nipple. But if the accused has any one of these, they’re probably a witch.
This all seems very strange to twenty-first century minds, but bear in mind that this was beginning of the Enlightenment. Sir Isaac Newton is establishing modern physics; microorganisms have just been discovered, thanks to the invention of the microscope. The Salem judges are methodical men who have worked out an evidence-based process for identifying witches. This is science, people. And while the criteria used by the judges had been part of European lore for centuries, Mather won’t endorse just any old method for identifying witches. For example, the traditional English practice of taking the urine of a bewitched person, stirring it into cake batter, baking the cake and feeding it to a dog, believing that when the dog takes his first bite, the party guilty of the bewitching will scream? Mather says this is “not only wicked Superstition, but great Folly.”
But in all seriousness, Wonders is a fascinating historical document. It’s an unsettling look into the minds of seventeenth-century Puritans, people who believed that evil lurked in their midst, and that they were first and foremost among Satan’s enemies.
And if you’re interested in a more objective look at events in 1692 Salem, we’ve got some books at SPL by historians who have varying takes on the subject informed by economic history, gender studies, and sociology. Try Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England, or Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go visit a neighbor and make an awkward request.
Then I need to bake a cake.
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Posted by: Kevin in Authors, Books
People love making lists. Especially book people, it seems. And the people at Publisher’s Weekly just tweeted a list of “The Ten Best Mark Twain Books” (their words, not mine). I was kind of surprised that they chose Mark Twain for such a list. He’s certainly noteworthy. He’s so influential that American literary history can and should be divided into “Before Mark Twain” and “After Mark Twain.” Nevertheless, he’s not on the tips of people’s tongues the way Jodi Picoult or Ian McEwan are.
The list was occasioned by the recent publication of Mark Twain’s America, a cultural snapshot of the U.S. in Twain’s lifetime illustrated with vintage photographs, prints, caricatures, maps and other artifacts from the Library of Congress. I devoured Mark Twain’s works when I was a teenager, so the list peaked my interest. Number one is Roughing It, Twain’s mostly autobiographical, frequently embellished, always funny account of his early years as a minor government official and then journalist in the West in the 186os. It’s early Twain (his second book), but his calling as a satirist was evident even then: everybody gets mocked, from the US territorial government to miners to Mormons.
Next up is The Gilded Age, a satirical novel about political corruption in Washington. I haven’t read it, but given the topic, how could it not be timely. The subject reminds me of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes: “There is no distinctly American criminal class–except Congress.”
Books 3 and 4 are Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. TS simply has no place on a list of “best books” by Twain. It’s heresy, I know, but I hate it. Huckleberry Finn, however, is a must-read, despite its poor structure: it’s a scathing critique of the antebellum US, and there’s no other American novel quite like it. Twain’s artistic decision to show us the world through the eyes of a semi-literate boy was unprecedented.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But I do recall it being a lot of fun. And the premise: a nineteenth-century New England inventor transported to Medieval England? What’s not to like?
The Tragedy of Puddn’head Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins is #6. As a work of fiction it’s actually not that good, in my opinion. However, for the time it was written it had an extraordinary premise: a light-skinned slave who has just given birth (the father is a friend of her owner’s) switches her white-skinned infant son with her owner’s newborn, to give her own child all the privileges of wealth and whiteness. Decades later the truth of their identities is discovered. The inevitable conclusion is that race is an illusion, and that nurture is everything.
Following the Equator is #7. This 1897 travelogue deserves to be much better known than it is. It’s a vivid, detailed account of what it was like to travel before air conditioning (never mind airplanes) and near-ubiquitous plumbing and electricity. It’s also an education in the late nineteenth-century world: Mark Twain visits New Zealand, Australia and India and sees (and detests) imperialism in action. But he also has some fun along the way, as when he mocks Australian town names (Waga-Waga, Goomeroo, Mullengudgery) and expresses a genuine appreciation of some of the cultures he encounters on his travels, such as that of India’s Parsees. And sometimes he’s simply dazzled by the places he visits. Of Hawaii he writes, ” The silky mountains were clothed in soft, rich splendors of melting color, and some of the cliffs were veiled in slanting mists. I recognized it all. It was just as I had seen it long before, with nothing of its beauty lost, nothing of its charm wanting.” And Twain, being Twain, weighs in one of the controversies that rocked nineteenth-century Western society: night shirts vs. pajamas.
Number 8: Twain’s posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger is one of his darkest, and to me most compelling, works. This unfinished novella is set in an Austrian village in 1590. The narrator, a young man named Theodor, becomes friends with a newcomer to the village, who reveals himself to be Satan’s nephew. The young stranger, also named Satan, creates mayhem in the village, often in the name of mercy. He predicts one man will die a slow and painful death, and decides to spare him that suffering by killing him immediately. Satan’s actions provoke a dialogue on morality and the cosmos between Satan and some of the villagers, perhaps summarized most poignantly in the exchange in which a woman says, “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His [God] seeing it,” and Satan devastatingly replies, “But it falls, just the same. What good is seeing it fall?”
I have never read the penultimate book on this list, Eve’s Diary (1907), a re-imagining of the first chapters of Genesis Twain wrote as a tribute to his late wife, Livy. I can tell, you, however, that if it is half as good as Mark Twain’s most famous creative treatment of Biblical themes, Letters from the Earth, any reader who takes up Eve’s Diary is in for a treat. Historical aside: the nude illustrations of humanity’s parents in the original edition led at least one library to ban it.
Frankly, I have mixed feelings about the choice for Number 10: the unabridged, uncensored edition of Mark Twain’s Autobiography. While it certainly shows a Twain unfamiliar to most readers, this edition of the Autobiography is a commitment: 1100 pages. And that’s only the first two volumes. Volume 3 is scheduled for publication next year. Personally I think the 1959 edition of The Autobiography edited by Charles Neider is great. And it’s a perfectly manageable 500 pages.
If I had to make my own Mark Twain list:
1. Huckleberry Finn. Ramshackle in structure, but still an American classic.
2. Roughing It. Worth it just for the section on polygamy.
3. Letters from the Earth. God’s just started an experiment he calls the Human Race. He sends the archangel Satan down to Earth to send back reports from the field, but Satan expresses what he really thinks only in his letters to his best friends, the Archangels Gabriel and Michael.
4. The Autobiography (Neider edition). Charming, funny and at times heartbreaking.
5. Following the Equator. At times you will laugh out loud. At other times you will be revolted by humanity.
6. The Mysterious Stranger. (My reasons above).
7. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays (vol. 2). Or really any other collection of his shorter writing that includes “The United States of Lyncherdom” and “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.”
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Since 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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Posted by: Ellen in Books, Databases, Films, Library Services, Music, News You Can Use, Online Resources, tags: audiobooks, Hoopla, movies, music
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 hoopladigital.com. 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.
Jocelyne 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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Boston 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 historical 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 Cox, 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
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:)
- 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.
- Amazon.com – 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.
- 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.
- 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.
All 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 follow 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 public 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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