Archive for the “Books” Category

caesarOn this day in 44 BC the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated. His murder and the ensuing warfare and chaos has been written about by historians, poets, playwrights and novelists.  SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, is a highly regarded and compulsively readable work in which she discusses the significance of Caesar’s life and death, as well as other important figures in Roman history such as Cicero, Hannibal and Augustus.

If you’re interested in learning more about the culture that produced Julius Caesar, I highly recommend Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Florence Dupont. Originally written in French, the English translation is lively and readable and topics covered in a manner suitable for a general audience. Dupont engages with questions such as how did the Romans think about the self, or about their gods? What did they eat? What relationships defined a person in Roman society?  What social messages did various articles of Roman clothing convey?

The most famous dramatic treatment of Caesar’s life and death is, of course, William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.  Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March (1948) is a thoroughly enjoyable novel about the months leading up to Caesar’s assassination, as told from the points of view of various members of Roman society.  Bennet Cerf, one of the founders of Random House, remarked in 1948 that “only three novels published since the first of the year that were worth reading … Cry, The Beloved Country, The Ides of March, and The Naked and the Dead.”



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Fates & Furies- Lauren Groff’s third book, describes marriage over a 23 year period, very vividly. The book illustrates marriage from two different perspectives, the husband and wife, seemingly, somewhat realistic, but who really knows for sure? After all, how many of us are completely honest in marriage?

I enjoyed the book immensely; many reviews compared the book to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I see where some readers may contrast character’s Amy Dunne (Gone Girl and Mathilde (Fates and Furies) but I disagree. The first half of the book “Fates” was told from Lotto’s perspective, which was light, happy and interesting. I immediately liked Lotto and was pulled into the book. The second half of the book, “Furies” was told by Mathilde, who was much darker and intriguing. At first, I thought she was a sociopath, much like Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, but then the book turned for a third time, and showed how love can truly open a person who has never been shown loved before. Mathilde could easily pass as a sadistic, selfish, behind -the -husband type of woman but ultimately, she was incredibly misunderstood throughout her childhood and life. She was someone who was never taught how to feel love or be loved except for and by Lotto. The book is more about forgiveness and understanding that some people just need to be understood.


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Umberto_Eco_04The world lost a brilliant mind and ingenious writer yesterday. Umberto Eco, author of phenomenally popular novels such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, died of cancer yesterday. He was 84.

Some were taken aback by the popularity of his work. On the face of it, Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose–a historical murder mystery with a crime-solving friar–sounds as if it was written to cater to the taste for crime novels in the Brother Cadfael vein. But in Rose, Eco immerses the reader in the intellectual life of 14th-century Europe. The characters discuss theological debates, ecclesiastical councils, Biblical analysis, and the work of Aristotle, all while the author himself is playing games with semiotics.

Another of Eco’s bestsellers, Foucault’s Pendulum, is a multi-layered novel about a trio of Italian intellectuals who uncover a conspiracy to take over the world by harnessing the power of earth’s rotation. The conspiracy is all-encompassing–the Masons, the Knights Templars, the Nazis, the builders of the Eiffel Tower–they’re all involved. The novel also features some Hindu philosophy, the story of the invention of the checking account, and an IBM computer named Abulafia. It’s insane. And it’s unputdownable.

Eco believed his novels were popular precisely because of their dense complexity: “It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

Other books by Foucault available in the Minuteman Network include his novels Numero Zero and The Prague Cemetery, as well as the essay collections How to Travel with a Salmon, Inventing the Enemy, and Turning Back the Clock.

Later this year his last novel will be released in Italy, with editions in English to follow.


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abraham-lincoln-youngHappy Birthday, Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth president was born on this day in 1809. If you enjoy historical photography you might be interested in checking out a recent SPL acquisition, The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, a collection of every known photograph of Lincoln, from his days as a young lawyer to the end of the Civil War. It’s a beautifully printed book and a fascinating window into life in 19th-century America.

Another title I recommend is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of teamofrivalsAbraham Lincoln, a masterful account of how this relatively unknown frontier lawyer, who was scorned as a bumpkin by the political establishment, succeeded in getting his disgruntled former rivals to work together and save the country during an unprecedented crisis.

Some might find my final reading suggestion a little dense, but I love the Library of America volume The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It. Other books about the Civil War are written in hindsight, but this collection of letters, diary excerpts, and speeches shows you how people of the day viewed events as they were happening and contemplated the uncertain future: the hysteria that swept the South, the furious debates in the border states, the dismay of Northern observers of secession, and finally, the grim resolve to go to war. In these pages are the voices of the important men of the day, such as Lincoln, Davis, and Frederick Douglass, as well the voices of those viewing events from the sidelines, such as the diarists Mary Chesnut of South Carolina and George Templeton Strong of New York.

You can get other Lincoln-related reading recommendations by going here.


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Have you ever noticed the 600 section in the main Somerville library on the second floor? The one where all the eating healthy and fitness books are? Well, I’m on a mission to read all of those books. Will I fail or succeed, who knows? Starting in the 613.2 section, I’m going to read the ones that interest me the most, and write mini reviews along the way. So here it is.
Laurie Bell in her book, Loose the Lies, Loose the Weight, is incredibly m51hDagJaQ-L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_motivating and will help you to believe that you can lose the weight, she goes over any myths about weight loss including, not being able to lose weight as you age. She gives you some incredibly good eating tips, and even a workout routine to help you build muscle and tone up!
Vani Hari, in her book The Food Babe Way covers emphasizes eating organic, non-GMO’s, no additives types of food. She recommends researching food before eating (because most food products lie to you) and buying to stay fit. “The Food Babe way” essentially tells you do things like:
1. Drink water with Lemon Everyday
2. Drink a green drink everyday (something with kale)
3. Stop drinking fluids with meals
FoodBabeWayBESTSELLER4. Eat fewer diaries (Only Use as Condiments
5. Stop Drinking Soda
6. Pay attention to alcohol consumption by only drinking organic wine & beer
7. Pass on Fast Food
8. Give up Sugar
9. Eat meat more responsibly
10. Eat Super foods!
11. Choose best possible grains and carbs.
12. Balance Fats
13. Avoid GMO Foods
14. Also Eat organic
15. Fast for 12 hours overnight -No late night eating!

Hari discusses how items like sugar cause cognitive decline, depression & irritability, as well as weight gain and diabetes. Did you know that? Because I didn’t.

In Yogalosphy, Mandy Ingber uses yoga every day to promote self-growth, and healing for you. The moves tend to lean a little more towards Pilates, yogathan any specific type of yoga, but it’s good if you would like to start feeling a little bit healthier each day. Ingber adds every day activities, like journal, drawing,  listen to music and cardio exercise in addition to the yoga as a form of self-healing. A personalized diet plan to follow for the 28 days, one you get to pick!
All in all Yogalopsophy, the 28 day make-up is a good way to start if you’re looking for a healthy new year’s resolution but you’ve gotta keep doing it even after the 28 days if you want real results.

If your interested in more health and wellness books, check out the 15 Best Wellness books of 2015 on


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highlandersRecently I walked past a re-shelving cart and noticed a paperback romance called Some Like It Scot, with cover art depicting a heterosexual couple  under-dressed for Scottish weather. According to the catalog record, the novel is part of a series called Scandalous Highlanders. Then scanning the shelves where we keep paperback romances at SPL, I realized that tartan-themed passion seems to be a really popular genre (I know next to nothing about romance novels, so this is all new to me): The Devil Wears Plaid, To Kiss a Kilted Warrior, Highland Rogue, and The Highland Dragon’s Lady (among other titles) are all available as guilty pleasures at SPL. And over at GoodReads someone compiled a list of “Best Highland/Scotland Romance Novels” consisting of 449 titles. As my co-worker Ellen and I were talking bemusedly about the existence of Scottish/Highland love stories, she asked, “Why is this A Thing? Why Scottish romances? Why not Czech romances? Or Norwegian romances?”

I didn’t have an answer. And it’s a fair question, especially if when willieyou hear the willie163602-76630-groundskeeper-willieword “Scotland,” the first thing you think is “Groundskeeper Willie.”  I started thinking about it, mentally rummaging through what I remember from reading British history.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, Scottish Highlanders were considered dangerous and uncivilized by most of the English-speaking world, including the inhabitants of Scottish towns and cities. But in the 1740s the British government enacted a series of laws that forced Highlanders to surrender their swords and outlawed traditional Highland culture, including the clan system of government and mutual obligation.  Then much of the Highlands were depopulated when lords evicted tenant farmers to use their land for raising sheep.

Once a people or a society formerly considered dangerous and living in a remote place is no longer a threat, they’re easy to romanticize.  In a blog post entitled “Hot for a Scot,”  Harlequin books editor Carly Silver wrote that the archaic image of Highland culture–a warrior culture in an untamed land–make Highland Scottish men “seem more foreign, and simultaneously, more desirable…the loner bad boys of the British Isles.”

robroyContemporary romance writers were by no means the first to tap into the appeal of the Scots in general and Highlanders in particular.  That distinction probably belongs to the inventor of the historical novel, Walter Scott (1771-1832), who  tapped into Scottish history and legend for the plots of his novels such as Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor, and Waverly. He was one of the best-selling authors of his day, and composers and filmmakers  adapted his work for the next century.

The romantic of appeal of the Scottish past has also shaped folk music and even amateur athletics. So if you’re someone who reads Scottish romances and is a little embarrassed by it, take heart: we’re all entitled to guilty pleasures.

And you’re part of a long tradition.

And for the record, there are Norwegian romances. Sort of.





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If you’re lucky you’ll have some time off next week.  Many Americans aren’t that fortunate. What do you plan to do with your time?  I will be reading Jenny Lawson’s new(ish) memoir Furiously Happy and returning to some old favorites: Carl Hiassen’s Tourist Season and Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers.

If you’re looking for book suggestions, the staff of Jezebel have compiled a list of their favorite reads this year. And Slate’s critics have compiled a list of the year’s overlooked books. If you want to see what’s been popular with Minuteman readers, go what see books are most requested by patrons. And if you want to refresh your memory on this year’s literary award winners, go here.

Happy reading…


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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a novel describing the hardships of women during war. This charming book set in France during World War II, focuses on two sisters, set apart early in life by a dead mother and distant father, tells the story of each woman.

Vianne, the eldest sister, additionally a mother and concerned for her young child’s survival, deals with the loss of her husband, who was drafted into the war. She fights to feed her daughter and battles cruel Nazinightingale soldiers who have invaded her Village of Carriveau as well as her house. Two different soldiers occupy her home during the German occupation, one of whom teases her with real food and coffee, something she has none of and rapes her. Vianne hopes that her husband will return to her and hopes her daughter will once again have a normal life of attending school and eating regular meals.

As Nazi soldiers take over the village, they begin to eat and store the entire town’s food for themselves. The people of France are rationed whatever is left over (which you can imagine isn’t much). Hannah’s use of words to describe the starvation is so descriptive; your mouth will start to water with hunger.

Isabelle, the youngest sister is free-spirited and rebellious. She becomes involved with the French resistance. She doesn’t believe for a word what Vichy France (the French government) tells her and its people. She eventually helps over a 100 men (foreign soldiers endangered of being deported to concentration camps) cross the mountains of France into Spain; this dubs her “Nightingale.” No Nazi soldier would believe that a girl could possibly walk soldiers for miles, uphill, in disastrous weather conditions to the safety of an independent country. Isabelle risks her life and her safety of also being deported to a concentration camp, all to help fight for her country.

This page turning book is remarkable and very endearing as two sisters who battle very different struggles find each other during war. This book can remind us how lucky we are that we don’t live in third world countries. The Nightingale is a great read, especially considering the recent events of the Massacre in Paris killing 128 people. Kristin Hannah has written numerous novels and other titles can be found here.


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A few years ago Esquire posted an online list entitled “80 Books Every Man Should Read,”  that keeps popping up relentlessly on social media. The list consists almost entirely of books by male writers. The list attracted the notice of writer and Harper’s contributing editor Rebecca Solnit who wrote a brief commentary about it called “80 Books No Woman Should Read.” She had a few sharp comments to make about some of the authors whose works are on the list. Of Hemingway she wrote, “if you get the model for your art from Gertrude Stein you shouldn’t be a homophobic antisemitic misognynist.”

Let’s face it: book lists are usually incomplete, or silly, or just simply wrong-headed, but for people who love books they’re fun to talk about. In honor of the upcoming holidays and the long agonizing hours many of us will spending with relatives, Buzzfeed published a list called, “39 of the Absolute Worst Families in Books.” It’s worth perusing. After reading a few novels with infanticide, fratricide, and incest, maybe your Fox-News watching cousin won’t seem so bad.

The New York Times has just published its annual Notable Books of the Year list.  It’s long, but well worth your time.  In a more eccentric  vein, here’s a book list posted on the blog MessyNessyChic and an end-of-year list from Weird Fiction Review. Below is my idiosyncratic book list. It has no theme. It’s just a random selection of books I think are great or that I really enjoyed.

First of all, speaking of dysfunctional families, I recently read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle for the very first time. An old New England family consisting of two sisters,  the reclusive adult Constance and the semi-wild teenage Merrycat, and their sickly Uncle Julian live in isolation from the rest of their village, following a life of idiosyncratic routine in their crumbling mansion. Early in the book it becomes clear there is something wrong, very wrong with the Blackwood family. Some pages in the book were so painful I had to stop reading and skip ahead. I won’t say anything more.

duncesA Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I’ve read the novel at least 8 times. A strange, brilliant picaresque novel about a mentally ill slacker’s misadventures in the French Quarter. And I don’t care how good the stage adaptation at the Huntington is. The novel is better.

Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Because Thanksgiving was this week. And because even if you think you knew a lot about Native Americans and their first contacts with Europeans, this book will surprise you again and again.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre. Because Ian Fleming is over-rated. This is hands down the best spy novel ever.

Tenth of December: Stories by George Saunders. Saunders is a brilliant short story writer. Warning: do not read this collection if you are depressed or easily horrified. Saunders takes you into awful worlds that are terrifyingly believable.

The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison. This wide-ranging empathy beautifully written collection  exams  suffering and the ways we react to it. Jamison explores topics ranging from her own drinking problem to a Mexican border city ravaged by violence. She writes about the lives of inmates at a low-security prison, the pain and injuries of runners at the Barkley Marathon in Tennessee, and the medical and emotional limbo of women who have a disease that may not exist.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion. Since I’ve just mentioned essays, I’m throwing in this 1968 collection. It’s a showcase of the essayist’s art.

portraitPortrait of a Lady by Henry James. This 1881 novel tells of the story of 21-year-old Isabel Archer, taken by a wealthy relative from her isolated youth in Albany and introduced into European society, an abrupt change in her life with ultimately devastating consequences. Portrait remains one of the most brilliantly written stories of an encounter  between New World innocence and Old World experience. And it’s a masterpiece of psychological portraiture and narrative elision. As a reader you start to grasp unspoken secrets, the reality of the lives lived behind decorous silence. Forget everything you might have heard about James being “unreadable”–this is a beautiful, heartbreaking book.

The Diary of A Young Girl  by Ann Frank. Because it’s the diary of Ann Frank.

Collected Essays by James Baldwin.  Baldwin was one of the twentieth-century’s most astute commentators on race in America. He was also a brilliant writer. The racial issues he explores in searing prose are just as relevant today as they were in the waning years of Jim Crow.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. A brilliant re-creation of Tudor England as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’ VIII’s ministers. In deftly written flashbacks, Mantel creates a compelling, sensitive portrait of a commoner who has risen to the pinnacle of society, and makes the complicated political intrigues of the Tudor into a compulsively readable story.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines is the story of Jefferson, lessona black man unjustly sentenced to death in the pre-Civil Rights South, and Grant Wiggins, a local school teacher who’s been asked by Jefferson’s family to visit and counsel him so that he will die with dignity.  Lesson is a beautiful, brutal book about the potential of seemingly trapped lives.


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For the week of Oct. 26 – Nov. 1, 2015.

thomas dylanOct. 27: Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath are both born on this date in 1914 and 1932, respectively. While both are considered among the greatest 20th century poets who wrote in English, their work is extremely different. Thomas wrote elegaic poetry influenced by the Victorian poets Hardy and Hopkins, with imagery drawn from the Bible, Welsh folklore and the works of Freud.  The much-younger Plath plathshocked  readers with the angry tone and brutal imagery she used to express  alienation and describe the darker sides of motherhood. Curiously, the best known poems of both are addressed to their fathers.  The contrast is stark. Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” addressed to his dying father, concludes, “And you, my father, there on the sad height,/Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray./Do not go gentle into that good night./Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” addressed to her deceased father, ends, “There’s a stake in your fat black heart/And the villagers never liked you./They are dancing and stamping on you./   They always knew it was you./Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

boswellOct. 29: James Boswell is born in Edinburgh in 1740. An alcoholic lawyer who is believed to have contracted venereal disease at least 17 times, he would be virtually unknown had he not been friends with the English writer Samuel Johnson and written a biography of Johnson that has been called the greatest biography ever written. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson was a breakthrough in the practice of biography for incorporation of dialogue and unprecedented inclusion of personal details. Boswell provides a full (and therefore often unflattering) portrait of his subject.

Oct. 31 Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes issherlock published as a book in 1892. The individual stories in the collection had previously been published in The Strand Magazine. Like all the Holmes stories, those in Adventures are narrated by Dr. Watson. In the first story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes affectionately refers to Watson as “my Boswell.”


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