And many very happy Free-For-All birthday wishes to poet, prose writer, diplomat, and translator, Czesław Miłosz!
Miłosz was born on this day in 1911 in Szetejnie, then part of the Russian Empire, now Lithuania. A polymath from a young age, Miłosz became fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, and French. His first volume of poetry was published in 1934, the same year he received his law degree from Stefan Batory University in Vilnius. He spent most of the Second World War in Nazi-occupied Poland,and while he didn’t joint the resistance or take part in the Warsaw Uprising, he did join the Organizacja Socjalistyczno-Niepodległościowa “Wolność” (“The ‘Freedom’ Socialist Pro-Independence Organisation”), and was responsible for helping Jews escape Poland. Though the exact number is unknown, we know that he personally saved the Tross and Wołkomińska families, actions which earned him the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem, Israel in 1989. In later life, he also became a supporter to gay and lesbian rights, especially in Poland.
After the war, he served as cultural attaché of the newly formed Communist People’s Republic of Poland (you can see his passport on the left, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) , though he defected in 1951 and lived under political asylum in Paris until moving to the United States in 1960. Because his works were banned by the Communist Party as a result of his defection, his work was almost never read in his home country. It was only when Miłosz received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 that many Poles discovered his work. After the Iron Curtain fell, he was able to return to Poland, at first to visit, later to live part-time in Kraków, where he passed away in 2004.
And speaking of books you can check out, here are some of the new books that paraded onto our shelves this week, and are eager to be a part of your Independence Day festivities!
We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria: In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets demanding freedom, democracy and human rights in the movement that became known as the Arab Spring. The government’s ferocious response, and the defiance of the demonstrators, spiraled into brutal civil war that has escalated to become the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. However, in the midst of all the headlines, arguments, and racist dogma that has been unleashed by the war in Syria, the voices of individual Syrians has gone largely overlooked. This book, based on interviews with hundreds of displaced Syrians conducted over four years across the Middle East and Europe, tells their stories. Some are pages long, some read like a verse of poetry. Together, though, they provide an unforgettable testament to human strength and endurance, as much as it is a counter-narrative to the prevailing tale of brutality, hatred, and disregard for that self-same humanity. Larry Siems, author of The Torture Report, wrote a powerful review of this book, saying, in part, “To read these pages, to meet these men and women, is to cross a bridge ourselves, and to tremble: at the fragility of social order…but also at the love, anger, terror, trauma, compassion, endurance, awe, and determination a single human voice can convey.”
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: For the record, I am physically exhausted by books that define women by their relationship to men. However, this book puts a feminist spin on some of the best of 19th-century’s weird and science fiction, so it definitely deserves another look. Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a significant financial reward for information leading to his capture, but Mary’s search leads her instead to Hyde’s daughter, Diana. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, befriending more women created through experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein. When their quest brings them face to face with the power-crazed scientists who created them, the question becomes, who is the real monster of this story? Theodora Goss’ debut novel is full of bravery, action, sisterhood, and a whip-smart intelligence that re-imagines all these classic 19th-century narratives of ‘progress’ that earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who called it “A tour de force of reclaiming the narrative, executed with impressive wit and insight.”
Grief Cottage: On the surface, Gail Godwin’s newest book is a ghost story. But it’s also a very human story about loss, grief, guilt, and the power of art that transcends typical conceptions of genre. After his mother’s death, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a small South Carolina island with his great aunt, a reclusive painter with a haunted past. Aunt Charlotte, otherwise a woman of few words, points out a ruined cottage, telling Marcus she had visited it regularly after she’d moved there thirty years ago because it matched the ruin of her own life, and inspired her to paint as a way of capturing their mutual desolation. The islanders call the place “Grief Cottage,” because a boy and his parents disappeared from it during a hurricane fifty years before. Their bodies were never found and the cottage has stood empty ever since. Marcus himself begins paying visits to the cottage, eventually meeting the young ghost who haunts it, and learning about the truth behind its possession of Grief Cottage. Booklist gave this haunting tale a starred review, noting “Godwin’s riveting and wise story of the slow coalescence of trust and love between a stoic artist and a grieving boy . . . subtly and insightfully explores different forms of haunting and vulnerability, strength and survival”.
The Black Elfstone: The Fall of Shannara: Terry Brooks is arguably one of the best-known fantasy authors at work today, and with good reason. His Shannara series has spanned 41 works (broken up into various sub-series), and this newest work launches the first in the series’ four-part epic conclusion. Across the Four Lands, peace has reigned for generations. But now, in the far north, an unknown enemy is massing. More troubling than the carnage is the strange and wondrous power wielded by the attackers—a breed of magic unfamiliar even to the Druid order. Fearing the worst, the High Druid dispatches a diplomatic party under the protection of the order’s sworn guardian, Dar Leah, to confront the mysterious, encroaching force and discover its purpose. Meanwhile, onetime High Druid Drisker Arc and his protege are beginning quests of their own, quests that will eventually drawn them together with Dar Leah in a tale that will have monumental consequences for the Four Lands. Though new readers may have a little bit of difficulty getting into this series, overall, Brooks’ works aren’t impossible to pick up mid-series, and his skills in the fantasy genre shouldn’t be missed. Patrick Rothfuss (one of my favorite fantasy authors) wrote a blurb for this book, saying “I can’t even begin to count how many of Terry Brooks’s books I’ve read (and reread) over the years. From Shannara to Landover, his work was a huge part of my childhood.”
The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions: Our planet has witnessed five mass-extinction events in its history, and scientists today are seeing some pretty strong correlations between those events and our current climate changes. In this terrifying, fascinating, and wide-ranging book, journalist Peter Brennan delves deep into earth’s past to discuss the five previous life-changing (literally) events, while presenting the stories from the scientists on the front lines of climate change research today, whose modern technology can reveal even more to us about the catastrophes of the past, how life on Earth manages to endure, and what all these stories can mean for us and our own future. This is far more than “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it”. Indeed, according to Library Journal, “If readers have time for only one book on the subject, this wonderfully written, well-balanced, and intricately researched (though not too dense) selection is the one to choose.”
Until next week, beloved patrons–Happy Reading!