We’re getting ready for Somerville Reads 2016 – our next One City, One Book program, which will take place in the early Fall – and we need your input! Which of these books would you most like to read and discuss as a community? You can read about each book below (the reviews have been edited for length) then vote for your pick at the bottom of this post.
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowel
What do you get when a woman who’s obsessed with death and U.S. history goes on vacation? This wacky, weirdly enthralling exploration of the first three presidential assassinations. Vowell (The Partly Cloudy Patriot), a contributor to NPR’s This American Life and the voice of teenage superhero Violet Parr in The Incredibles, takes readers on a pilgrimage of sorts to the sites and monuments that pay homage to Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, visiting everything from grave sites and simple plaques (like the one in Buffalo that marks the place where McKinley was shot) to places like the National Museum of Health and Medicine, where fragments of Lincoln’s skull are on display. An expert tour guide, Vowell brings into sharp focus not only the figures involved in the assassinations, but the social and political circumstances that led to each-and she does so in the witty, sometimes irreverent manner that her fans have come to expect. (Publisher’s Weekly, starred review)
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
If Jesse Owens is rightfully the most famous American athlete of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, repudiating Adolf Hitler’s notion of white supremacy by winning gold in four events, the gold-medal-winning effort by the eight-man rowing team from the University of Washington remains a remarkable story. It encompasses the convergence of transcendent British boatmaker George Pocock; the quiet yet deadly effective UW men’s varsity coach, Al Ulbrickson; and an unlikely gaggle of young rowers who would shine as freshmen, then grow up together, a rough-and-tumble bunch, writes Brown, not very worldly, but earnest and used to hard work. (Booklist, starred review)
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: a Memoir by Roz Chast New Yorker cartoonist Chast (Theories of Everything) had vaguely thought that “the end” came in three stages: feeling unwell, growing weaker over a month or so in bed, and dying one night. But when her parents passed 90, she learned that “the middle [stage] was a lot more painful, humiliating, long-lasting, complicated, and hideously expensive” than she imagined. Chast’s scratchy art turns out perfectly suited to capturing the surreal realities of the death process. In quirky color cartoons, handwritten text, photos, and her mother’s poems, she documents the unpleasant yet sometimes hilarious cycle of human doom. (Library Journal)
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
A resplendent novel from the author of The Sky Is Everywhere. Fraternal twins and burgeoning artists Jude and Noah are inseparable until puberty hits and they find themselves competing for boys, a spot at an exclusive art school, and their parents’ affections. Told in alternating perspectives and time lines, with Noah’s chapters taking place when they are 13 and Jude’s when they are 16, this novel explores how it’s the people closest to us who have the power to both rend us utterly and knit us together. (School Library Journal)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
In a radical departure from her Jackson Brodie mystery series, Atkinson delivers a wildly inventive novel about Ursula Todd, born in 1910 and doomed to die and be reborn over and over again. She drowns, falls off a roof, and is beaten to death by an abusive husband but is always reborn back into the same loving family, sometimes with the knowledge that allows her to escape past poor decisions, sometimes not. Alternately mournful and celebratory, deeply empathic and scathingly funny, Atkinson is working at the very top of her game. An audacious, thought-provoking novel from one of our most talented writers. (Booklist, starred review)
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
In 1692, the Massachusetts Bay Colony executed 14 women, 5 men, and 2 dogs for witchcraft. The ensuing terror cut a wide swath through the colony, affecting residents of all ages and educational backgrounds. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Schiff (Véra; Cleopatra) chronicles the surrounding events, painting a vivid portrait of a homogeneous, close-knit network of communities rapidly devolving into irrational paranoia. Proving, yet again, that truth is stranger than fiction, she mines existing records, extrapolates all the major characters, and pieces together the unfolding story in suitably dramatic fashion as neighbors, friends, and family members turn on one another. (Booklist, starred review).
NBC nightly news correspondent Richard Engel has written an intriguing book about living two decades in the Middle East. From witnessing bomb explosions, kidnappings, bribery’s, meeting Saddam Hussein and at one point was the only living American reporter in Baghdad during the Iraq War, Engel has shared a great and fascinating experience with us that all American should read.
The book begins with a brief history of the Middle East, how it’s come to be, so many cultures, religions and types of people all in the one place. Engel also brings up the fact that most Americans know nothing about this culture. In school, we learned about it as, Mesopotamia, “the cradle of civilization,” but today we just think the Middle East, a place, most Americans don’t even want to hear about.
As a freelance journalist he moved to Cairo in the early 90’s and saw the revolution in 2013, he also spent time in Israel, and watched bombings explode across the street, then moved onto Baghdad where he became the only American journalist in Iraq during the war. At that point he became a NBC news correspondent. Engel discusses how ISIS came to be in power today and what he foresees will happen to the Middle East in the next ten years.
Did you know that you can check out an e-book for free from your library and download it to your Ipad or kindle fire? A whopping 40% of people don’t know they can check out an eBook from their library! So instead of spending all that money on Amazon.com, you can get all the books for free, by signing into Overdrive using your library card. Overdrive has audio books & eBooks! This is just another way libraries are moving along with the times and providing you more ways to access information (all for free)!
Hoopla is also available to you with your library card, you can stream movies on your computer, listen to music, and download audio books, eBooks and watch TV! If you don’t know how or aren’t sure how to do any of this, just ask a librarian!
On this day 81 years ago Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the law that created the Works Progress Administration, an unprecedented effort by the federal government to provide employment during an economic crisis. At its peak the WPA employed over 8 million people on public projects ranging from building roads and making parks to creating public works of art and interviewing former slaves about life before Emancipation.
Incidentally, one of the ways the WPA employed writers was by sending them all over the country to document the varying foods and culinary traditions of different parts of the country. You can read about their discoveries in Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land.
If you’re interested in the art work created by WPA employees, do a Google image search for “WPA art.” You’ll be astounded.
I leave you with a short clip from a contemporary government film about the WPA:
According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans surveyed consider themselves lifelong learners. Many of them are “professional learners:” they take courses or attend trainings to enhance their job skills and career prospects. However, the vast majority are “personal learners:” they learn skills or subjects that personally interest them.
And while the Internet can be an indispensable tool for learning, a majority of personal learners say a physical space (such as a library or adult education center) was important in their self-education.
Whether you want to learn at home or here in the library, don’t hesitate to ask us to help you find books or other resources related to your interests. Do you want to learn a language? Many of our patrons love our Mango Languages database. Other patrons prefer books. A few years ago a guy came into the library and used SPL’s Japanese workbooks to teach himself Kanji. We’ve got books on blacksmithing, gardening, game programming, digital photography and weaving (to name a few topics).
So come to the library and find something new to learn.
It’s St. Patrick’s Day. For some that might mean drinking some Guinness or listening to Irish folk music, but for enthusiastic readers it’s an occasion to add some books by Irish writers to their reading list. I am steering clear of the usual suspects (e.g., Ulysses) to point out some books that might be under the radar of many readers.
John Banville is a prolific writer of both beautiful, challenging literary fiction and of mysteries (the latter under the name Benjamin Black). He’s also consider a potential Nobel laureate by his admirers. You can’t go wrong trying any of his books. My personal recommendation is his Revolutions Trilogy: the first two volumes, Dr. Copernicus and Kepler, are historical novels about the aforenamed Renaissance scientists. The third volume, The Newton Letter, is the haunting story of a twentieth century historian who moves to the country to finish a biography of Newton and becomes drawn into the life of the mysterious family from whom he’s renting his cottage.
Shade, a novel by acclaimed filmmaker Neil Jordan, is about four childhood friends of different social classes who, as they grow up, approach the threshold of a world designed to separate them. The story of their connected yet estranged lives is one of war, heartbreak, insanity and murder. It’s a finely wrought tale of stunning bleakness.
William Trevor is another Irish writer who’s considered a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize. He is one of the best contemporary short story writers and three of his novels have won the Whitbread Prize. One of those novels, Felicia’s Journey, is the story of a naive, friendless Irish girl wandering the English Midlands, looking for the man who got her pregnant and then disappeared. Soon the hapless Felicia attracts the interest of two very different people. Miss Calligary walks the streets with her Bible looking for souls to save. Mr. Hilditch is a middle-aged caterer who has never said or thought anything original in his life. As these two seemingly harmless people square off for custody (as it were) of Felicia we begin to realize that something is very, very wrong….
On 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.”
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.
The 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.”
Happy 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 Abraham 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.