Archive for the “Books” Category

jeffersonOne of the most interesting books I’ve read this year  has been Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. I would have been drawn to it anyway because of my love of history, but I was especially intrigued by the book’s subject because I’m in charge of the library’s programming series Muslim Journeys.


Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a fascinating look at one of the most astonishing episodes in American history: the establishment of America as a secular state, one where there were no religious requirements for citizenship or public office.  It was an idea so unusual for the time it was almost incomprehensible to many. Some people have trouble grasping it now. But fortunately some of the most prominent Americans of the time, such as Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Washington, were able to embrace the idea and make it law

When Thomas Jefferson was a law student in the 1760s he purchased an English jefferson_qurantranslation of the Qur’an. He had a universalist outlook and thought it perfectly reasonable for a lawyer arguing a court case to cite customs of other cultures or the teachings of other religions as well as English case law (I have to wonder, however, how well citing the Qur’an would have gone over with an eighteenth-century Virginia jury).  The purchase of this book was the beginning of an intellectual journey that led to Jefferson’s support of  complete religious freedom, and acceptance of the idea of Muslims as full citizens of the new republic. It was a politically dangerous idea, particularly since to most Americans of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Muslim meant “pirate” (just as to many Americans now Muslim means “terrorist”). American merchant ships that sailed the Mediterranean were often captured by pirates from North Africa and held for ransom. Many European nations paid money to North African governments to guarantee their ships safe passage, prompting no less than John Adams to remark, “The policy of Christendom has been to make Cowards of all their Sailors before the Standard of Mahomet.”

Jefferson, however, refused to equate Islam with piracy: to him this was clearly about money and force. As president he sent warships to North Africa rather than pay bribes. But he was also the first U.S. president to receive a Muslim diplomat at the White House.

As you can imagine, the latter did not go over well with many in this country. Many Americans already disapproved of Jefferson for his unorthodox religious beliefs.* When he was first elected president, a rumor spread among the pious ladies of New England that Jefferson would send soldiers to confiscate their Bibles. He was also the first American president believed to be a closet Muslim (sorry, Obama).

Thomas Jefferson’s Qu’ran is a fascinating, if at times meandering book. It includes accounts of the 1786 campaign to disestablish the Episcopal Church as Virginia’s official religion and of the fierce (and kooky) debates in North Carolina over ratifying the Constitution (some people in NC were horrified at the lack of religious qualifications for public office; some were particularly terrified at the prospect of a Catholic president, and the idea that an American Catholic could become pope and then be elected president).

I wish the author had delved a little further (if it’s possible, given the source material) to explain more clearly how men like Madison and Washington, as well as Jefferson, came to embrace the notion of a secular state.  Nevertheless, this is a groundbreaking work of history that’s profoundly relevant to contemporary America.


*He believed in a god but not in the divinity of Christ.


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For most of us today is just another Monday, or at most an excuse to go out for Mexican food tonight or make a margarita at home. For Mexican-Americans and Mexicans residing in the US, today is a celebration of Mexican heritage. But what is Cinco de Mayo?

pueblaThe holiday commemorates the highly unlikely victory of a Mexican army over invading French forces on May 5, 1862, near the city of Puebla, Mexico. Here’s the background: after the U.S. invasion of 1846-48 and two civil wars, the Mexican government was destitute. President Benito Juarez declared a two-year moratorium on foreign debt payments.  France responded by invading: Napoleon III thought he could take advantage of the situation to establish a puppet state in Latin America that would further French interests.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, most Mexicans weren’t down with this plan. As the French marched inland, they encountered heavy, but unsuccessful resistance. However, outside the city of Puebla a poorly-equipped Mexican army roughly half the size of the French forces defeated the invaders, forcing them to retreat back toward the coast. The Mexican commander, Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, sent a one-line note to President Juarez: “Las armas nacionales se han cubierta de gloria” (“The national arms are covered in glory.”)

The victory was an incredible gift to Mexican morale: the French army was considered the best in the world, and they had been beaten by a Mexican force half their size.

The French did successfully regroup, march inland, take Mexico City and establish a puppet government. However, their success was brief. The French-sponsored collapsed in 1867. and President Juarez’s government re-convened in Mexico City.

If you have any interest at all in Mexican history, come over to the library and browse the shelves where the books have call numbers beginning with 972. Among some of the most interesting reads in that section are Enrique Krauze’s Mexico: Biography of Power, a fascinating history of Mexico from 1810 to the present. I also love The Mexico City Reader, which is a kaleidoscopic overview of the cultural, social and historic life of one of the world’s greatest megacities. And I think it’s obligatory for Americans to read A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States.

Happy reading. And perhaps have a margarita while you’re at it.



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As my friend and co-worker Ellen noted below, April 23 is traditionally observed as the birthday of William Shakespeare, an anniversary celebrated around the world.

 And this is a big one: the Sweet Swan of Avon is 450.

 But some people don’t see what there is to celebrate.

 Many very smart people don’t like Shakespeare and that’s fine. To each his own.  However, I think everyone should be aware of his influence on our language.  This nobody  from a provincial town (which is how most people thought of him during his  lifetime) transformed English, giving it a vividness, beauty and bite that it had never had before.  And every day most people quote Shakespeare without knowing it.

 Maybe you were the sort of person who liked to lie low in English class, because the difficulty of Shakespeare’s language set your teeth on edge, and you had a stony-hearted teacher who liked to call on you, even though you thought it was all a verbal wild goose chase.  And when you finished school, you thought good riddance, I’m done with Shakespeare.

Well, the more fool you: you use Shakespeare’s English every day, and it’s high time you gave the Devil his due. Let’s say all of a sudden you find yourself in a pickle, or facing something so scary it makes your hair stand on end, and then as good luck would have it your problems vanish into thin air: you’re quoting Shakespeare. 

If you’ve ever had a guest who’s eaten you out of house and home and you waited for them to leave with bated breath (and that seemed to take forever and a day), you’re quoting Shakespeare.

 Now I’m not saying Shakespeare is the be all and the end all.  And I don’t expect this blog post to transform you into a Shakespeare enthusiast  in the twinkling of an eye, so  don’t feel defensive and get up in arms.  I know people who are exceedingly well read who will never pick up Macbeth or Hamlet.  And you can’t just go and read everything that other people consider important: that way madness lies.

 At this point you’re probably thinking this is too much of a good thing or that I’m laying it on with a trowel. And frankly I could do this all the live long day. That’s a foregone conclusion.

 So now I’ll stop.

 Or let’s just say the game is up.








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libfrVisitors to the Central Library often comment on the frieze in the main reading room that runs along the perimeter of the room just below the ceiling. It’s a partial reproduction of the friezes on the Parthenon, one of the finest surviving buildings of Classical Greece and a symbol of Western civilization.  Ever since this building opened a century ago, library staff have been telling anyone who asks that the frieze depicts the Panathenaic Procession, which concluded the annual festival of the same name held in honor of Athens’ patron deity, the goddess Athena.

Why have we been telling people this? Because everybody knows it, everybody in this case being Classical archaeologists and art historians.

But everybody might be wrong.

New York University archaeology professor Joan Connelly takes issue with this interpretation. First, if the Parthenon friezes do depict part of an annual religious festival, they would be unique. All other known Greek temple art depicts mythical events.  In her latest book, The Parthenon Enigma, she sets out an alternative theory that many other scholars find plausible.

First she calls our attention to the so-called “peplos panel,”* which is central Peplosto the notion that the frieze represents a religious procession. All we really know is that it shows a bearded man and a younger person of undetermined gender folding a cloth. Traditionally experts have maintained we are seeing the unfolding of the peplos, the new woolen robe draped over the statue of the goddess Athena when the procession arrived at the temple.

However, Connelly points out that the younger person is partly undressed. Partial nudity at such a sacred moment–the culmination of the Panathenaic festival–would have been considered sacrilegious. She also notes that if the frieze does depict the Panathenaic procession, key elements are missing, such as the woman carrying a reed basket who traditionally led the procession,  a fake ship bearing the peplos as if it were a sail, and representatives of Athens’ allies bearing tribute.

Connelly thinks the frieze depicts something else entirely, a horrific event from Athens’ early mythic history, retold in Euripides’ play Erechtheus.  Athens is at war with Eleusis.  The title character of the play, the king of Athens, consults the Delphic oracle, who tells  him Athens will be saved if he sacrifices one of his daughters. He returns home and tells his queen, Praxithea, who replies, “This city, though it bears a single name/Holds many people in it. Should I then/Destroy all these, when it is in my power/To give one girl to die on their behalf?” She’s saying yes, our daughter must die, for everyone’s sake.

So what we are seeing in the frieze, according to Connelly, is the imagined procession to a human sacrifice. And the so-called “peplos panel” depicts a young girl changing into the ritual garments she will wear when she dies.

Praxithea’s statement has been considered the most uncompromising expression of Athens’ nascent democratic ethos: no one, not even a princess, can stand in the way of the common good. Or to put it more brutally, a mother should not value her own child’s life over that of others.

discusWhether Connelly’s right or wrong, her argument opens the way to clearer  thinking about the Ancient Greeks, a people that those of us  in the West usually think of as our cultural forbears. A professor at my undergraduate school taught a survey course on the ancient world. He always began his lectures on Ancient Greece with the words, “And now we are coming home.” In other words, those Egyptians and Babylonians–their art, their architecture, their ways of thinking–they’re just all so different. But the Ancient Greeks, these are people of the past in whom we can see ourselves.

But only if we close our eyes to much of Greek life. We live in an optimistic society, where we expect a certain fairness in the world, and we tend to shield ourselves from many ugly facts, whether by turning our heads or turning off the news.

But the Greeks believed that cruel, capricious gods governed the world and they stared directly at the most hideous realities. They knew everything comes at a price. For example, one man’s leisure is bought with another man’s enslavement. They glory of a soldier like Achilles comes from the deaths of the men he slaughtered. And in the case of a foundation story of the most iconic Greek city, that community’s existence and all that followed–democracy, art, literature–comes at the most senseless of prices, the murder  of  a little girl.

The past is a country more foreign than we can ever grasp.


*Not included in the Central Library frieze.


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Check out staff suggestions in the Teen Room's Women's History Month display.

Check out staff suggestions in the Teen Room’s Women’s History Month display.

by Eileen and Sujei

March is Women’s History Month, and teens can find plenty of inspiration in the stacks of the SPL. Understanding the impact and achievements women have had in many fields – science, the arts, politics, religion, to name a few – is important for not only girls but also boys to keep in mind. What these women have accomplished have enhanced and enriched the lives of both men and women, boys and girls. And this impact isn’t limited to the stuffy old past either. Today’s women and girls are still working toward social and economic justice. Although women have come a long way this past century, women and girls around the world still struggle for rights to control their bodies, to be respected when they walk on the streets, to choose their careers or goals and other everyday actions.

Here we list some items to get you started on learning about women’s great contributions to world society – and some books about strong female characters to give you some inspiration. Also, check out the Teen Room display for staff picks of interesting movies, music and books.

Letters to a Young Feminist by Phyllis Chesler
Women’s rights : changing attitudes 1900-2000 by Kaye Stearman
Women’s rights by Jennifer A. Hurley
Keeping corner by Kashmira Sheth
Mujeres: crónica de una rebelión histórica by Juan María Alponte
The Yellow wallpaper and other writings by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Blueprints for building better girls: fiction by Elissa Schappell
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
How I live now by Meg Rosoff
Dueled by Elsie Chapman
Blood red road by Moira Young
If I stay by Gayle Forman
The miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

Use your Minuteman Library Card to download audio and e-books for your device from the Minuteman Virtual Catalog. Here are some suggestions:
Full frontal feminism: a young woman’s guide to why feminism matters by Jessica Valenti
Almost astronauts: 13 women who dared to dream by Tanya Lee Stone
The gender knot: unraveling our patriarchal legacy by Allan G. Johnson
Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
When you reach me by Rebecca Stead

If you need to do some research for a school paper, or just want to read about famous women without committing to a book, explore the Somerville Library databases. We suggest starting with the Biography in Context or Opposing Viewpoints databases.

And don’t hesitate to ask a librarian for help!


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asiaJoin us this Saturday at 2 pm for our next Muslim Journeys event: University of Michigan professor Stewart Gordon will lead a discussion of the his book When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors and Monks Who Created “The Riches of the East.”

  In school we learn the history of Europe: how civilization was in ruins after the fall of the Roman Empire, but slowly, over centuries, it staggered back to life: first through the crude but vibrant Middle Ages, then its flowering in the Renaissance.

During that  time Europe was slowly recreating itself, Asia was a hothouse of culture and science. Gordon examines this relatively unknown part of world history through the lives of men who traveled throughout the continent and left behind accounts of what they did and saw: a Chinese monk, a Jewish spice trader, an Indian warrior-king and a Moroccan jurist–to name a few.

You do not need to have the read the book to attend or be entertained by this fascinating history.


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Have you heard about the Digital Comic Museum? It’s a free online resource that allows users to download public domain golden age comics!  The goal of the project is to archive these comic books online and make them widely available. All files have been researched by DCM staff and users to make sure they are copyright free and in the public domain. It’s easy to register for a free account and start downloading and reading right away. That ought to keep you busy for a while!

Want more? Check out the 741.5s for some cool books about comics, golden age and otherwise. Here are just a few to whet your appetite – there are many more!

Foul Play!: the Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! by Grant Geissman

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones

1,000 Comic Books You Must Read by Tony Isabella

The Ten-Cent Plague: the Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America by David Hajdu


Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution by Ronin Ro

The Will Eisner Companion: the Pioneering Spirit of the Father of the Graphic Novel by N.C. Christopher Couch and Stephen Weiner

Comic Book Culture: an Illustrated History by Ron Goulart


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Neil deGrasse Tyson How much do I love astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson? Well for starters, I forgave him for the part he played in the demotion of Pluto.

Why do I love Neil deGrasse Tyson?  One reason is because he’s an eloquent advocate for science education (and for learning in general),  and a fierce warrior in the modern fight against ignorance.   Another is that he has such an abundant sense of what is wonderful in the universe and that he communicates that to anyone who is willing to listen.  Below are a few of my favorite Tyson quotes.

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” [source]

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” [source]

“Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not.” [source]

Many of Tyson’s books are available in Somerville and throughout the Minuteman Library Network.  Here are the past decade’s worth:

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier

The Pluto Files: the Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet

Death by Black Hole: and Other Cosmic Quandaries

The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist

Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution

One Universe: at Home in the Cosmos

Tyson also appears on TV frequently (he formerly hosted PBS’s Nova scienceNOW).  He has a new show coming out next month – an update of Carl Sagan‘s beloved 1980s series Cosmos.  I can hardly wait!


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In honor of Valentine’s day, we turn our attention to romance novels.  If you are a fan, you might know that there is an organization called Romance Writers of America which each year recognizes outstanding published romance novels and novellas with the RITA awards.  Below are lists of the 2013 finalists in a few of the categories.  There are many more.  For a complete list, click here.

BrideHistorical Romance
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter by Lori Austin
Bride by Mistake by Anne Gracie
Defiant by Pamela Clare
A Lady Never Surrenders by Sabrina Jeffries
The Recruit by Monica McCarty
A Rogue by Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean
Too Dangerous to Desire by Cara Elliott
Wedded in Sin by Jade Lee



Paranormal Romance
Angel in Chains by Cynthia Eden
Edge of Oblivion by J.T. Geissinger
Immortally Yours by Angie Fox
Lothaire by Kresley Cole
Mark of the Witch by Maggie Shayne
Moonglow by Kristen Callihan
Rogue Rider by Larissa Ione
Shadow’s Claim by Kresley Cole



Romantic Suspense
Celebrity in Death by J.D. Robb
Dead Heat by Bronwyn Parry
Don’t Cry for Me by Sharon Sala
Forged in Fire by Trish McCallan
Last Man Standing by Cindy Gerard
Scorched by Laura Griffin
Twisted by Laura Griffin
Vortex by Cherry Adair


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Yesterday’s Boston Globe had a front page story on tiktaalik, a 375-million-year-old fish with limb-like fins and larger than average pelvic bones. Tiktaalik is of particular interest to scientists studying how animals transitioned from life in water to life on land in ancient times. If you would like to see a skeleton of this famous creature, along with a realistic-looking model of what it may have looked like in life, look no further than the Harvard Museum of Natural History, right next door in Cambridge. You can even get into the museum at a discounted price by taking advantage of the Library’s Museum Pass Program, which is generously funded by the Friends of the Library – thank you Friends!

Want to read more about prehistoric beasts? Check out the Dewey 560s, which happens to be one of the coolest nonfiction sections in the Library. Here’s a sampling of what’s on offer, but of course there are many more – have a look for yourself!

Dinosaur Art book coverThe Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age by David Rains Wallace

Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart edited by Steve White

Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs: Soft Tissues and Hard Science
by Phillip Manning

How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn’t Have to be Forever by Jack Horner and James Gorman

The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man by Amir D. Aczel

Mammoth book coverLast Ape Standing: the Seven-Million Year Story of How and Why We Survived by Chip Walter

The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt by William Nothdurft with Josh Smith

Lucy’s Legacy: the Quest for Human Origins by Donald C. Johanson and Kate Wong

Mammoth: the Resurrection of an Ice Age Giant by Richard Stone

My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs by Brian Switek

Next of Kin: Great Fossils at the American Museum of Natural History by Lowell Dingus

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs
by Gregory S. Paul

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight
by Pat Shipman

Time Traveler: in Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Mammals from Montana to Mongolia by Michael Novacek

Trilobite!: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey


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