Archive for the “Somerville Reads” Category

witchesPeople have been voting for the next Somerville Reads book. So far Stacy Schiff’s The Witches is in the lead. If you haven’t voted already, come to the Central Library and do so.


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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).

Click here to vote for your choice!

Somerville Reads is a project that promotes literacy and community engagement by encouraging people all over the City to read and discuss the same book.


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Remember Mark Watney in The Martian modifying the astronaut habitat to grow potatoes? Over at Quirk Books Danielle Mohlman has posted some potato recipes from various online sources.

And if you’re interested in food real-life astronauts would eat, Tara Ziegmont of Feels Like Home has instructions for making astronaut pudding. The post includes a video of an astronaut on the International Space Station demonstrating how he and his co-workers make dinner.



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Earlier this week, NASA announced the discover of water on Mars.  However, the Curiosity rover is banned by treaty from analyzing it.

The Mars Orbiter spotted a dry-ice avalanche on the planet.

Over at, staff writer Mike Wall outlines the various ways NASA might get a manned mission to Mars.

And over at, Angela Watercutter explains why the movie is better than the book.


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Marvin_the_Martian_by_raelynn36Does your kid want to make a Martian? Silly question–what kid wouldn’t? Be at the East Branch tomorrow with your children at 3:30 and Children’s Librarian Meghan Forsell will open her Ali Baba’s cave of craft supplies and help your kids make mini-Martians out of her wondrous trove of creative goods.




Then follow it up with dinner and a movie at the Central Library! marsattacksChildren’s Librarian Cathy Piantigini hosts a potluck dinner and an outdoor screening of the 2005 version of The War of the Worlds. This box-office smash hit about a Martian invasion of Earth stars Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, and features eye-popping special effects by Steven Spielberg.

The fun starts at 6:00 pm!


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One noteworthy feature of The Martian is the absence of any, well, actual Martians. In many science fiction works set on Mars, most notably Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, the presence of an intelligent native species is a key plot element. And thanks to the work of Percival Lowell, whom I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post, many credulous people believed that Mars was inhabited. And given that contact between different human cultures has often resulted in war, there was little reason to believe contact with Martians would be any different.

Cultural works reflect the anxieties of their times. In H. G. Wells’ index1898 novel The War of the Worlds, Earth is invaded by hostile Martians.  In the Mars novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (yes, the creator of Tarzan), a Virginian named John Carter finds himself transported to Mars and must fight to survive in a strange, violent society. In Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 novel First and Last Man, Earth is invaded in the far future by Martians who want our water and air.

Anxiety about hostile extra-terrestrials was heightened by the 1947 Roswell Incident, when an Air Force cover-up of the crash of top-secret aerial surveillance equipment led many to believe the Marvin_the_MartianU.S. military was hiding a crashed alien spaceship. Societal anxieties often find an outlet in humor: the  year after Roswell, audiences of Warner Brothers cartoons met Marvin the Martian, a rather ridiculous creature who’s always trying to destroy Earth because it obstructs his view of Venus (he’s always stopped by Bugs Bunny).

Throughout the 1950s and 60s various people claimed to have seen unidentifiable aerial objects, fueling speculation that aliens were visiting Earth. The U.S. being what it is, it was almost inevitable that a TV network would make a sitcom about this.  The result was My my-favorite-martianFavorite Martian, a TV series that ran from 1963-1966 in which a young Los Angeles journalist takes a stranded Martian anthropologist into his home, passing him off as his uncle. So, given this long history of belief/anxiety/worry about Martians, why isn’t there a Martian in the The Martian? Bottom line: we know too much about the red planet now. Observational craft have been orbiting Mars since the 1960s. The first exploratory unmanned spacecraft landed on the planet in 1975. All of the planet’s surface is mapped. We know what’s there, and it doesn’t include intelligent life. If The Martian had been written sixty years ago, a novelist could say anything about the planet and it could be credible. Not now. We still have our alien fantasies, but we have to keep moving their homes to farther-off places. That’s why the aliens mentioned on The X-Files were supposedly from Zeta Reticuli. That’s why ALF was from Melmac.


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The selection of The Martian for Somerville Reads raises the question, “Why Mars?” No one would ever write a book called The Venusian or The Plutoniac. But the words “Martian” or “Mars”  command attention. And they long have. But why? What is it about this planet that has fascinated humanity for so long? A partial explanation is that Mars is distinctive-looking. The planets we can see without telescopes look like more or less white stars. Mars, on the other hand, is a striking reddish color. imagesFurthermore, every couple of years it moves relatively close to Earth and becomes much easier to see with the naked eye. Egyptian astronomers had identified it and recorded its movements as long ago as 1534 BCE.

Other ancient cultures took note of it as well. The Babylonians named it “Nergal,” after their god of inflicted death, probably due to its blood-like color. The Greeks and FarneseRomans also both named it after their god of war (Ares and Mars). In China, Japan and Korea, Mars was referred to as “the fire star.” The ancient Hebrews drew a more interesting association from its color, and named the planet “Ma’adim,” “the one who blushes.”

In modern times Mars became a source of fascination for another reason. In 1877 the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he thought were long straight lines on the surface , and included them in the map he created of the planet.  He called them canali, Italian for “grooves.” The word was commonly mistranslated into English as “canals.” The poor translation fueled speculation that the red planet was home to intelligent life.

The idea that there might be intelligent beings on Mars had some thinking, “How can we communicate with them?” And many people, in utter seriousness, suggested the most hare-brained ideas. Chicagoan E. Ellsworth Carey opined that a level section of land five miles in diameter be covered with a black substance and then “gas jets or electric arcs” be placed all over it about three feet apart.  When the rotation of the Earth brought the side of the planet where this land was located to face Mars, someone controlling all these light sources would flash signals in Morse Code. The assumption being Martians could read Morse Code. The Boston Globe’s editorial position on the idea was “If the people of that planet can read good Morse, it will work, but it will cost a heap.”

In the 1890s former businessman and diplomat Percival Lowell took up an interest in astronomy and the idea that there were canals on Lowell_Mars_channelsMars. He founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona and moved there to study Mars and Venus. He drew diagrams of what he saw on the red planet’s surface, and decided that the canals had been dug by a desperate dying civilization to bring water from the polar ice caps to its much dryer central regions.  Lowell wrote three books expounding his ideas: Mars (1895), Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars as the Abode of Life (1908). Lowell is believed to have done more than any other man to popularize the idea that there is intelligent life is on Mars.

More posts on Mars later….


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MarsJim J Zebroski of the Aldrich Astronomical Society will be giving a talk on Mars as our kickoff event for this year’s Somerville Reads. Zebroski will discuss the history of humanity’s fascination with the red planet and our ever-increasing knowledge of it thanks to satellites, probes, and unmanned rovers. There will also be a touch table with replica samples of Martian soil and model rovers.

If the weather’s good and the skies are clear, Zebroski will take the audience outside to look at Mars through powerful telescopes.

And there will be prizes! I repeat: prizes.

Now say it to yourself in the voice Cookie Monster uses to talk about cookies: Prriiizzessss!

The place: The Central Library, 79 Highland Ave. The date and time: Wednesday, Sept. 16 at 7:00 pm.


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There’s still plenty of summer left regardless of all the Back to School merchandise and the (GASP!) snow blowers that appear to be creeping into the patio section of your local Target. Summer is my favorite time of year to relax with some great reading material. Here are a few recent selections of mine for you to consider.

The Cold Nowhere by Brian Freeman

Detective Jonathan Stride has his hands full with the mystery surrounding a supposed murder/suicide when a decade later he finds the lone survivor of the case, Cat Mateo in his home, dripping wet from what she describes to him as a narrow escape into the icy water of Lake Superior from an unknown pursuer. The fact that her clothes are bloodstained and her story questionable appears to be lost on the guilt ridden detective whose partner Maggie Bei must now work both sides of the case to satisfy her own doubts about the homeless teen, the lost decade, and Stride’s safety from the knife wielding, deeply damaged girl.

A fast pace and a steady introduction of characters may provide Stride (and the reader) with the key to helping Cat with her immediate threat and finally solving the case that he just couldn’t let go of involving the murder of her mother 10 years earlier.

There are additional novels if you enjoy the main character Detective Jonathan Stride, so check them out!

Bountiful: Recipes Inspired by Our Garden by Todd Porter and Diane Cu

I have a large backyard perennial garden, but during the long cold winter of 2015 my husband and I decided to dedicate a section of our yard to growing vegetables in raised beds – I could probably do a whole BiblioBites on the books we gobbled up to prepare our raised beds for the season, but that’s for another day! Suffice to say that good preparation makes for great results and so we are enjoying our home grown produce immensely! As every gardener knows once the initial crop is harvested and the thrill of “our first (fill in the veggie)” wears off, there’s still a lot of summer left and the produce keeps rolling in and so a cookbook like Bountiful is perfect for solid, easy to prepare dishes with accents on what’s ripe and ready. Let me start by telling you that authors Todd and Diane are multi-talented. They are the authors of the White on Rice Blog and are also food photographers. The recipes are easy to follow and you will have most of the produce/spices/seasonings and herbs either on hand, in your garden, CSA share or at your local farmers market. The multi-cultural culinary influence that this couple brings to food preparation has made book a “must purchase” for my personal collection.  Warning: the photographs of the food are so amazing you may find yourself turning the pages with a fork.

The Martian by Andy Weir

This book is the current Somerville Reads (our community reading program) selection.

True Confessions (Part 1) – ok, so truth be told, when I found out that the section committee chose a Sci-Fi story I groaned while reading the email announcing the book choice. My natural tendency for reading material very seldom (wait, since this is TRUE confessions ) NEVER leans toward Sci-Fi. So with a few planned days off, I decided to grab a copy and give it a try.

True Confessions (Part 2) – Who was it that said “You can’t judge a book by its cover?” and actually it’s not the cover in this case it’s the genre! This is SCIENCE-fiction. And well what do you know – I loved it!

Author Andy Weir’s original self-published story became an online phenomenon that led to print publication and a movie deal (soon to be released). The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney who is stranded on Mars after a sequence of events during a huge dust storm forces the evacuation of the rest of the crew who presume he is dead, the victim of a satellite dish which becomes untethered during 150 mile an hour winds, which knocks him backwards down a hill and impales him with its antenna. This is a man vs nature vs impossible odds adventure that will captivate the reader while educating the lay person in “how to live vicariously through Mark Watney and survive on Mars.”

Weir is a brilliant scientist who just happens to have written a novel about space and in my opinion that makes all the difference. He has created a very human character whose survival instincts are pushed to the limit, and beyond his education and training. You will find yourself rooting for Mark, and as the story develops wondering how it will come to its conclusion. The last 20 pages are literally edge-of-your-seat. A perfect beach read!

The Martian circulation is gaining speed as the Somerville Reads Program begins its preliminary event planning so get on the waiting list, grab a copy, and enjoy this Sci-Fi selection even if it’s your first!

Other selections to consider:
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
Yes, Please! by Amy Poehler
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


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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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