Archive for the “Books” Category

..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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The_Martian_2014Our next book for Somerville Reads, our annual community one town/one book series of events, is the critically acclaimed best-seller The Martian, the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and his struggle for survival. The Wall Street Journal called it “The best pure sci-fi novel in years.” Kirkus Reviews praised it for being “sharp, funny and thrilling.”  A film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott (the genius behind one of the best sci-fi films of all time) will be in theaters in November.

Copies of the book are at SPL now. Come get one!


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twainOn this day in 1883 Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi was published. For readers who know Twain primarily as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Life  is a bit of a surprise, but it’s actually a quite typical book for Twain: part memoir, part travelogue, part rumination. The core of the work is Twain’s account of his pre-Civil War training to become a steamboat pilot; but it’s also a work of  regional history and a love letter to a phenomenon of nature: the Mississippi River. In one passage, he recalls seeing the river at sunset early in his steamboat career:

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal…

And like all of Twain’s works, Life has some moments of comedy, although they probably won’t seem that funny to adults today. But mostly this book is a reflection on a vanished world, when the Mississippi was a highway for trade and travel for the middle of a continent, and the pilots who navigated ships safely up and down it were esteemed as masters of a valuable and complicated craft. Twain wrote Life on the Mississippi at a time when all that was gone, when the railroads had become the most important means of shipping and mode of travel in America and cities such as Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans were completely different from what they were in his youth.

It’s worth a read, and yet far from his best. For the record, it was one of my favorite books when I was fourteen. I keep meaning to go back to it, but so many books, so little time.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mark Twain and this period in his life, you might want to pick up one of any number of the fine biographies of Twain, such as Ron Powers’ Mark Twain: A Life.


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booksaleCome to the Central Library next weekend and stock up on books! Ones you can keep forever! There will be thousands of books covering dozens of subjects in at least four languages.

Our book sales happen thanks to the hard work of the Friends of the Somerville Public Library. Proceeds from SPL’s book sales pay for our museum passes and programs.




Book sale schedule:

Thursday, May 14      5:00-8:00 pm preview (For Friends who joined at the $50 level or higher)

Friday, May 15             12:00-4:00 pm

Saturday, May 16        10:00 am-4:00 pm

Sunday, May 17            1:30-3:30 pm


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lincolnYesterday was the 150th anniversary of the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He was shot in the head in Ford’s Theater, where he was watching the play Our American Cousin. A century and a half and three presidential assassinations later, it’s impossible for us to comprehend what a national trauma it was.  It was the first time an American president had been murdered.

Ford’s Theater has put together an online exhibit on national reactions to the assassination. It’s a fantastic example of how the Internet can be used to teach history. I’ve been a history geek my entire life. I wish the Web (and sites like this) had been around when I was a kid. Among the most instructive aspects of the exhibit are the indications that many people welcomed Lincoln’s death–and not just in the former Confederacy.  The site has an interactive map where you can see reactions to the assassination in different parts of the country. In San Francisco some people were apparently quite happy about it: Major General MacDowell ordered that anyone celebrating Lincoln’s death be arrested. To characterize the war as “North against South” is clearly an oversimplification.

The site has an additional collection of written reactions to Lincoln’s assassination, including Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain, My Captain!” and diary entries by Emilie Davis a free African-American  Philadelphian who wrote in her diary, “everything assumes a solemn aspect the streets look mournful the people more so.”

freedomThe anniversary is related to two popular subject areas at SPL: the Civil War and true crime. The Battle Cry of Freedom is a compulsively readable one-volume history of the Civil War.   I’ve also enjoyed another book by the same author: For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.

For those fascinated by presidential assassinations, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Destiny of the Republic, an account of the shooting of President Garfield and the attempts to save him. It’s a gripping read: not only does the author vividly recount the life of an almost completely forgotten president, she also tells a fascinating story of nineteenth-century medicine. Alexander Graham Bell was summoned to Washington and asked to invent a device that could find the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body (no pressure). But the effort to create an X-ray machine was the only part of the president’s treatment that resembled modern medicine. In fact Garfield probably would have survived if he had been kept away from his doctors, who poked and prodded in his wound with unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments.


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…for April 9, 2015

Grant150 years ago today Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, bringing an end to four years of war that caused 600,000 deaths.  The generosity and forbearance of the victors in the American Civil War has no historical precedent: there were no executions; Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their property; Confederate prisoners were released as soon as they swore an oath to never again fight against the U. S. government. When Union soldiers began to fire and cheer in celebration, Grant ordered them to stop: “The Rebels are now our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after victory will be to refrain from all celebrations.”

The war inspired a vast body of written work, including novels, cold Mountain Book Coverhistory, memoirs and poetry. My favorite novel set during the Civil War is Cold Mountain by James Frazier, the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier making his way back home to North Carolina and to Ada, the woman he loves. While Inman does his best to stay alive in a war-ravaged land where all order has broken down, the once-wealthy Ada has to re-learn how to live, how to grow her own vegetables, raise livestock and make her own clothes. This winner of the 1997 National Book Award is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read in that I could actually believe the characters were from the nineteenth century, that I was experiencing a world I knew about, but that was at the same time profoundly alien.

One of my favorite works of Civil War history is Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Winik’s focus on so short a time period enables him to give his readers a sense of what it was like to live, work and fight in 1865. We follow Lincoln’s secretary John Hay as he walks to the telegraph office in the evening to wait for the latest reports from the front. We sit in on the deliberations of the Confederate government as they realize time is running out. And agonizingly, we walk with John Wilkes Booth into Ford’s Theater up to the President’s box where he commits one of the greatest crimes of all time. But this book is more than an epic retelling of events in the lives of famous men. Winik never lets you forget what the war was really about, and the greatest good that came out of it. He recounts the ex-slave Houston Holloway’s memory of becoming free in 1865: “I felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

goreFor an overview of the cultural and political world of America in the 1850s and 60s, you probably can’t do better than Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Literature of the American Civil War. Wilson discusses, analyzes and dissects the writing of the period: travel accounts by Northerners in the South, diaries of Confederate ladies, memoirs by Union generals. He also reflects on the work of post-war writers who were shaped by the conflict, such as Kate Chopin and Ambrose Bierce.

If you’re interested in learning about the Civil War but none of these titles sound appealing, come to the library and ask me or one of my co-workers for help finding something. That’s why we’re here.


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Portrai163 years ago today Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in two volumes by the Boston firm John P. Jewett. The book had initially appeared in serial form in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era. 10,000 copies of the two-volume set were sold in two weeks and 300,000 in the first year. Jewett himself said, “Three power presses are working twenty-four hours per day, in printing it,…and still it has been impossible…to supply the demand.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the first American novel to sell a million copies, and is considered the most influential book of the nineteenth century for its role in turning public opinion against slavery. Related reading at SPL: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz and Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter.

On this day in 1841  Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue poeMorgue,” which is considered the first modern detective story, appeared in Graham’s Magazine. Certain aspects of the story became long-lasting conventions of detective fiction, including the brilliant detective with the less-than-brilliant sidekick who serves as narrator, the police who aren’t quite up to the job, and the clues that are hidden in plain sight which only the detective notices and understands.  Arthur Conan Doyle called Poe’s work “a model for all time” and based Sherlock Holmes in part upon Poe’s fictional detective, C. Augustin Dupin. Related reading and viewing at SPL: the Library of American collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 30s and 40s, the nonfiction work Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries and the Revolution in Forensic Science, and the incomparable BBC television series Sherlock.




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In January of 2014, I started on an AudioBook journey that was prompted by a conversation with a library patron during my evening work rotation on the Central Library’s circulation desk. I value the conversations I have with many of the patrons here at the Somerville Public Library, many of whom I know not necessarily by name, but by the routine with which they use the Library services and the overlap with my desk assignments both evenings and weekends. I find our patrons (adults, young adults, children, parents, boomers and beyond) to be insightful and enthusiastic when prompted by a conversation surrounding their imminent check-out (book, audiobook, film, music.)

Such was the case with a conversation that arose with a patron who was checking out Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I mentioned to the patron that I’d read and enjoyed both Blink and The Tipping Point and in return he recommended What the Dog Saw (a series of short stories by Gladwell), and I thanked him for the suggestion. At this point in the blog, you should probably know that prior to my Circulation assignment I spent my evening rotation in what was previously our AV Department (the current Teen Library) and witnessed first-hand the volume of AudioBooks that circulated through SPL. I used to do an informal poll of patrons as to their intended use of the AudioBooks by these patrons and discovered a recurring theme – most patrons listened to the AudioBooks during a long commute (work or pleasure trips), or were crafters (listened while knitting, crocheting, sewing, beading, etc.) and occasionally there were bleary-eyed parents of newborns, late-night caregivers or gardeners. Truthfully? I just didn’t think I’d be one to warm up to “listening” to a book when I love the prospect of having a good book in my hands.

So… there I was, a year ago, with a decision to make as I readied my finger to click on the search/hold for What the Dog Saw. The decision to select an AudioBook has changed my literary life forever!

For starters, (in my opinion) one of the single most important “make or break” for any AudioBook is the reader. As personal as every book choice we make, the voice of the reader has to appeal to and immediately connect with the listener. Think of it as reading the jacket of a book for a synopsis and deciding that 1) yes, I think I will read this book, or 2) no, this one is not for me. In selecting a book, the only voice you will hear is your own as you read the words of the story. Now add to the decision of selecting an AudioBook the fact that the voice you will be listening to is someone else’s. From a parental standpoint, it is humbling to realize that both my boys needed to make that exact decision every night as young children. Mom or dad for the bedtime story? “Who makes better truck sounds?” In hindsight, we both shared equally in the raising of our readers, so I feel very fortunate!

Having devoted a full year to exploring a variety of AudioBooks (including Playaway), the bottom line for me is that I would wholeheartedly recommend that you give this option a try in 2015. Don’t give up after one or two tries- once I settled into a rhythm of selections, I latched onto a genre, author and/or reader and made multiple selections- I thoroughly enjoyed some***, got through others** , and returned a few* 20 minutes into “the listen.” (It’s all good, life is short and there are so many choices and voices out there waiting to be discovered!)

Below is a list of the AudioBooks I selected during 2014-I plan to do a follow up BiblioBites of my favorites in a future post along with some print selections I read in between audio selections. Note: the list is not entirely in the order I listened to them.

These selections are read by the author:
What the Dog Saw – Malcolm Gladwell ***
Seriously…I’m Kidding – Ellen DeGeneres***
This Time Together: Laughter and Reflections – Carol Burnett**
Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Stephanie Cohen*
Bossypants - Tina Fey***
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman*

These selections were read by a variety of talented readers other than the author who is listed :
Deadly Heat - Richard Castle***
Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walters***
Doctor Sleep – Steven King***
Cross My Heart - James Patterson (playaway/beach walking)***
Vanish - Tess Gerritsen***
20th Century Ghosts - Joe Hill (broad daylight listening only)***
Heat Wave - Richard Castle***
Frozen Heat - Richard Castle ***
Escape - Barbra Delinsky**
Heat Rises - Richard Castle***
The Accident - Chris Pavone (playaway/beach walking)***
Naked Heat - Richard Castle***
The Cuckoo’s Calling - Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)***
The Silent Girl - Tess Gerritsen***
Mr. Mercedes - Steven King***
The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith***


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Here is part 2 of the Q & A with Dr. Alice LoCicero, who will be at the Central Library on Thursday, March 19th at 7:00 p.m. to discuss her new book, Why “Good Kids” Turn Into Deadly Terrorists: Deconstructing the Accused Boston Marathon Bombers and Others Like Them.

Aren’t you afraid that people will disparage you for writing about the perpetrators?

Yes. And I hope people will understand after talking with me for a few minutes that my goal is prevention, plain and simple. As a social scientist, I believe that the best way towards prevention starts with knowledge.

The events surrounding the Marathon attacks shook me, just like it did all who live and work in the Boston area. There were so many losses of young people that especially tore at me. The loss of a promising young officer in the MIT police, a young man close in age to my own son and who, I learned, was a lot like many of the sincere and caring students of criminal justice I have taught over the years. Lingzi Lu, an international student from China who had just passed an important exam in statistics, who had made new friends in Boston, and who loved music. Active and engaged eight year old Martin Richard, a lovable child who advocated for peace, from a family who gave much to their community. Krystle Campbell, who was known as caring, reliable, life-affirming, and generous. Thinking about them leaves me, and all of Boston, in tears and grief at the promising young people we as a community have lost. The impact of the bombing did not end with those lives lost. Hundreds more were injured, and many of their injuries are so severe that their lives are changed forever. The Boston community has shown tremendous care and support, helping to lessen, as much as possible, the devastating impacts of the bombings. If only we could have protected those affected, and their families, by preventing the attacks.

Cambridge, Massachusetts has been home to me for decades. My children went to school in Cambridge. I worried, along with my neighbors, about whether the school our children had gone to and the city had somehow failed these young men. I remember being haunted by the question that President Obama, on April 19, asked: “what would bring these young men, who had lived in our communities and studied in our schools, to resort to violence?” I was challenged by that question. I strongly felt that it was a question that had to be answered and could be answered. And that I was in a position to help.

While none of us could undo the horror of April 15, 2013, together, I believe we can shape the future to reduce the likelihood of such horror occurring again. From 2002 to 2006, I had worked on research on terrorism. In 2006, I co-founded an international organization we call the Society for Terrorism Research, as a forum to collaborate with colleagues with similar interests. That society is still going strong. For my personal contribution to ending terrorism, I did something that several colleagues considered rash: I traveled to a country where a civil war was going on, to talk to kids about the war and about why kids would choose to fight as part of one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE.

I wrote about the results of that research in the book, Creating Young Martyrs. As I explored and researched the events in Boston, I found that some of what I had learned in Sri Lanka was parallel to what I was learning about the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing. I started to write. My editor at Praeger and I decided that this research, too, should turn into a book-length report.

All the while I was studying terrorism, I was also working with those affected by it: The 9/11 families, teachers and child care workers in Sri Lanka, and refugees from many parts of the world. Each encounter with someone affected strengthened my determination to do what I could to prevent these events. I am hopeful that my book will help.

My work has included conversation with other psychologists in the EU and the US who are pursuing similar paths. We have all, separately and without prior consultation, come to similar conclusions. Preventing young people from radicalization, recruitment, and terrorist acts is a function of the community—parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends. Law enforcement and government have their role, but they cannot do this alone.

How can ordinary citizens be expected to prevent terrorism?

It all begins with listening, being interested in the experiences of kids. Virtually every teenager I talk with tells me that neither their parents nor their teachers really know about the pressures they face. They try to protect their parents by keeping things private, not wanting to worry them. My colleagues and I believe that parents need to be aware and proactive in making time and creating conditions to talk to kids. Some kids are more private than others, and some would rather talk to recruitment is not an aberration. Attempts to recruit kids to illegal and often violent actions are common. And in today’s globally connected society, recruiters and the recruitment process can be virtually invisible to families and loved ones.

How can you refer to people like the accused Boston Marathon bombers as “good kids”?

When the Tsarnaev brothers were younger, all reports from teachers, peers, and others indicate that they were good kids. One of the younger brother’s teachers referred to him as having a “heart of gold.” Their friends were horrified and also totally surprised that they could do such a heinous act. The same is true for kids around the world who later became terrorists. The Norwegian who participated in the Nairobi mall bombing was planning to be a physician and was viewed as a good kid. The Tunisian boy who put on a suicide vest was successful and sociable. The Tamil girl who was featured in a film about kids who joined a terrorist organization had wanted to be a nun. It is these very kids—caring, altruistic—who are targeted by unscrupulous recruiters who then manipulate the truth, bringing them to believe that the best, most caring, and most altruistic thing they can do is to bring attention to causes of concern by engaging in terrorist actions.

Is your approach likely to help prevent kids from joining ISIS?

Yes. The ISIS force is no different in the sense that it presents an image that is hideous to most, but can be presented to naïve youth as an opportunity to fight against the most powerful forces in the world, to fight for the “underdog.” Especially kids who have seen, in news report after news report, American forces fighting in dominantly Muslim countries, can easily believe that someone should “level the uneven playing field.” Recruiters use a lot of psychology and sophisticated marketing, designed to appeal to a teenager.

We have a huge task ahead: to present a realistic picture, providing time and space that will enable kids to re-evaluate the story being told by recruiters.

Dr. Alice LoCicero is a clinical and research psychologist who lives in Cambridge. She is core faculty at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology at Boston Medical Center. In addition to this most recent book, she is also the author of Creating Young Martyrs: Conditions That Make Dying in a Terrorist Attack Seem Like a Good Idea (Praeger, 2008).


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