Snow. Snow. And yet more snow. And we’re all tired of it. And record-breaking low temperatures tonight. It’s all too easy to let the weather get you down. But if it’s too cold to go out, go in: into a book. Reading is a great way to forget whatever is troubling you, whatever you’re tired of, whatever you wish would go away. So I and a couple of my colleagues at another library put together a list of titles we hope you’ll enjoy.
One of the great fictional detectives of our day is Walter Mosley’s Leonid McGill, an African-American private eye who lives and works in Manhattan. His family alone would keep his hands full: his wife Katrina is continually unfaithful and he can barely keep track of all the illegal side businesses run by his precocious teenage son Twill. But as a p.i. he also does very dangerous work for wealthy, powerful people–making a lot of enemies in the process. I love all the McGill novels I’ve read, but I suggest you read them in order. The first three are The Long Fall, Known to Evil and When the Thrill is Gone. They are unputdownable.
Arlington reference librarian Jenny (who blogs about books and IT here) recommends Simon Rich’s hilariously absurd novel What in God’s Name. God (yes, that God) decides He’s going to destroy the Earth and devote Himself to His long-cherished dream of opening an Asian fusion restaurant. However two low-ranking angels who are reluctant to see Earth go the way of the mastodon strike a deal with the Diety: He’ll call off Armageddon if they can get the two most socially awkward humans in existence to fall in love each other. The New York Times Book Review called What in God’s Name a “satirical sandbox that plays with the Bible’s assertions.”
If you’re in the mood for nonfiction, Jenny is a fan of This American Life contributor Sarah Vowell’s tongue-in-cheek pop history of early New England, The Wordy Shipmates. I’ve read it as well and I agree it’s a fun book. The story of one of the most important episodes in American history is even more fascinating viewed through the quirky, nerdy lens of Vowell’s mind. She even manages to make theological disputes interesting. And if the idea of reading a book about the Puritans still puts you off, I’ll let Vowell herself sell you on her subject:
“I’m always disappointed when I see the word ‘Puritan’ tossed around as shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to Hell. ”
Another Arlington librarian, Linda (head of reference, actually, and blogger about books and knitting at a website named after rodents) suggested Tana French’s The Likeness. Like Mosley’s, French’s mysteries have a recurring principal character: Dublin police detective Cassie Maddox. In Likeness, Cassie is pulled out of the domestic violence division to assist with a murder investigation. The reason: the victim, Lexie Madison, looked exactly like her. To find out who killed Lexie, Cassie is talked into impersonating her and taking up Lexie’s place in the home she shared with four eccentric and charismatic housemates. And even though one of the four may be a murderer, Cassie finds herself strangely drawn to them.
And finally, both Linda and Jenny recommend Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. This New York Times bestseller is the story of a couple, Clare and Henry, who first meet when she is 6 and he is 36. Henry suffers from “chrono-displacement disorder:” he travels through time at random. Their relationship doesn’t actually begin until they meet in the time Henry belongs in, when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28. The strains and slippage of any long-term relationship are exacerbated by Henry’s frequent disappearances and reappearances. And he often reappears a different age than he was when he left. It’s quite an unusual love story, to say the least. Everyone I’ve known who has read this book has raved about it.
Happy Birthday, Sinclair Lewis. This author of devastating critiques of American life was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota in 1885. Recommended related readings from SPL: Babbitt, one of my favorite novels of 1920s America and Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s.
Reading the published diary of someone who died early can be a poignant experience. You can only speculate on what they might have become had they lived. Sometimes all you can think is, “The world lost this person too soon.”
Petr Ginz (1928-1944) was a child of extraordinary energy and gifts: between the ages of 8 and 14 he wrote five novels. He was also an accomplished painter (for a child) and a fluent speaker of Esperanto with an insatiable curiosity about science. Given his privileged background (his father was a Prague textile exporter) in normal times he would have a future of unlimited promise. But when he was 11 the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia and under Nazi law he was classified as ein Mischling ersten Grades, a child of mixed Aryan and Jewish ancestry: one of the racial “undesirables.” In 1941 he began keeping a diary documenting life as a Jew under Nazi rule. His writing is hauntingly laconic, sometimes wry and detached, creating a narrative vacuum that the reader’s feelings and imagination automatically fill as they grasp the dark realities Ginz describes: “October 30 1941: In the morning at the Levituses. They have everything ready for the journey to Poland.” “In the morning I was with Eva [his sister] and Daddy in Maniny. It is now almost the only place where Jews can go for a walk.” At the same time the life and mind of a child often break through this catalogue of clipped details: he recounts feuds with schoolfriends (“I have organized a boycott of Popper”), gloats at getting good grades (“I had an oral test in geography and I got an A as pure as milk”), and makes cryptic references to behavior that could be the result of boyish rambunctiousness, a temper tantrum, or an outburst of despair: “In the evening I broke a lamp by throwing a pillow.” As the diary continues to its end, you can feel the deepening darkness as more and more people he knows are sent to concentration camps in entries such as “July 27 1942. Auntie has left.”
In October 1942 Ginz himself was sent to the Terezin camp. Being the boy he was, he continued pursuing his education and artistic pursuits. He had access to a library of confiscated books. He became an editor of the magazine started by camp residents and he wrote an Esperanto-Czech dictionary as well as another novel (lost).
In 1944 he was sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed.
In 2007 his sister Eva edited his diaries and some of his Terezin writings, which were published in English as The Dairy of Petr Ginz, 1941-1942. Ginz is also the subject of the 2012 documentary, The Last Flight of Petr Ginz. (Trailer below)
How about reading and discussing a book with people from all over the world?
Harvard’s Global Outreach Program hosts an online book group for educators. This year’s theme is “Crossing Borders in Time and Space.”
Their next book is Anthony Marra’s novel of life in war-torn Chechnya, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. On Thursday Jan. 22, at 7pm, the author will discuss his book with Nieman Fellow Irina Gordienko, a journalist with years of experience covering the region. An interactive online discussion will follow. All that is required to participate is an Internet and the current version of Flash. Registration and more information is here.
Their next book discussion, scheduled for April 30, is on Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel of drug-war haunted Colombia, The Sound of Things Falling, which the New York Times called “a page-turner, but…also a deep meditation on fate and death.”
NPR has a great report on Armed Services Editions, the pocket-sized books that entertained and consoled soldiers during World War II. Here is the link to request a library copy of the new book on ASEs, When Books Went to War.
Have you ever wondered what was involved in making books before the rise of industrial-scale printing in the 1840s? You can watch someone make a book with a hand-operated printing press here.
Grown-ups who read YA books? You’re in good company. While adult book sales were down this year, guess what sales were up 22%?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.