Five Book Friday!

We also wouldn’t want the day to pass without acknowledging the loss and legacy of Harlan Ellison, who passed away yesterday at the age of 84.  Ellison was a prolific writer of science-fiction; including more than 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays (including the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”) and edited volumes.  He was also notoriously contentious and argumentative–a trait that made him seem unapproachable.  Twitter, however, featured a number of tributes from authors who received kindness, guidance, and honest support from Ellison, showing that all people are complex and fascinating, and often possess the potential to surprise from the better.

Via The Guardian

If you’re looking to learn more about Ellison’s work, The Guardian has an excellent primer to get you started.

And for those looking for some more stellar reading choices, here are some of the new books that leapt onto our shelves this week, and can’t wait to share your summer adventures with you!

The Melody: On the surface, Jim Crace’s newest novel is a melancholy story about love and loss–but in short order, it opens up into so much more…a story about social issues, outsiders, poverty, class, and humanity that is both eye-opening and moving.  Aside from his trusty piano, Alfred Busi lives alone in his villa overlooking the waves. Famed in his town for his music and songs, he is mourning the recent death of his wife and quietly living out his days, occasionally performing the classics in small venues – never in the stadiums he could fill when in his prime. On the night before receiving his town’s highest honor, Busi is wrested from bed by noises in his courtyard and then stunned by an attacking intruder–his hands and neck are scratched, his face is bitten. Busi can’t say what it was that he encountered, exactly, but he feels his assailant was neither man nor animal.  As the people of the town begin to panic, remembering old stories about an ancient race of people alleged to be living in the forests, and threaten to take action, Busi, weathering a media storm, must come to terms with his wife’s death and decide whether to sing one last time.  This is a powerful and emotional story that is resonant on a number of levels.  Publisher’s Weekly agrees, calling this book “Haunting and transfixing . . . Like the simple but subtle song from which the novel takes its title, The Melody’s effects linger, coloring the reader’s feelings about the thin border between the natural world and human society.”

Number One Chinese RestaurantLillian Li’s debut novel is probably not one to read when you’re hungry.  The restaurant in which it’s set sound precisely like the kind of place you want for dinner.  The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a beloved go-to setting for hunger pangs and celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each character to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.  Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their 30-year friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.  This is an energetic, exuberant novel that is as tangible in its scenic details as it is honest about its human characters, all combining to make a novel that earned a lovely review from Kirkus who praised it as follows: “Evoking every detail of [this restaurant] with riveting verisimilitude . . . Li’s sense of the human comedy and of the aspirations burning in each human heart puts a philosophical spin on the losses of her characters.”

Confessions of the FoxJordy Rosenberg’s historical novel sounds like a pitch-perfect blend of speculative history, mystery, love, and identity that will make it an ideal summertime adventure-read.  Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess were the most notorious thieves, jailbreakers, and lovers of eighteenth-century London. Yet no one knows the true story; their confessions have never been found.  Until now. Reeling from heartbreak, a scholar named Dr. Voth discovers a long-lost manuscript—a gender-defying exposé of Jack and Bess’s adventures. Dated 1724, the book depicts a London underworld where scamps and rogues clash with the city’s newly established police force, queer subcultures thrive, and ominous threats of the Plague abound. Jack—a transgender carpenter’s apprentice—has fled his master’s house to become a legendary prison-break artist, and Bess has escaped the draining of the fenlands to become a revolutionary…but is the manuscript an authentic autobiography or a hoax? Dr. Voth obsessively annotates the manuscript, desperate to find the answer. As he is drawn deeper into Jack and Bess’s tale of underworld resistance and gender transformation, it becomes clear that their fates are intertwined—and only a miracle will save them all.  For all the fun in this book, there are a lot of big and important questions being explored here, giving this story critical depth and emotional gravity.  Entertainment Weekly agreed, saying of it “An ambitious, thought-provoking novel [that] explores everything from gender identity to mass incarceration, moves between centuries, and even features footnotes. . . . You’ll find yourself immersed, and maybe even changed.”

Pandora’s Box: A History of the First World War: As someone who reads a lot of the First World War history, this is a good one (if a heavy one!).  It’s even more compelling because it’s written by a German historian, who offers a perspective on the global war that we English-readers don’t often get.  Jörn Leonhard treats the clash of arms with a sure feel for grand strategy, the everyday tactics of dynamic movement and slow attrition, the race for ever more destructive technologies, and the grim experiences of frontline soldiers. But the war was much more than a military conflict, or an exclusively European one. Leonhard renders the perspectives of leaders, intellectuals, artists, and ordinary men and women on diverse home fronts as they grappled with the urgency of the moment and the rise of unprecedented political and social pressures. And he shows how the entire world came out of the war utterly changed.  Combining close-source analysis as well as grand strategy, this is a book that Professor Robert Gerwarth noted “stands out as the most comprehensive recent book on the First World War in any language… From the microcosm of the trenches to the home fronts, from the big battles in the East and the West to violent upheavals after 1918, Leonhard’s treatment of the war is wide-ranging while also giving ample space to the different layers of war experiences.”

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World: If you’re like me, and never really got over your complete obsession with dinosaurs (and not really the Jurassic Park monsters, but, like real dinosaurs…), then this is the book for you.  In this captivating narrative (enlivened with more than seventy original illustrations and photographs), Steve Brusatte, a young American paleontologist who has named fifteen new species in the course of his career, tells the complete, surprising, and new history of the dinosaurs, drawing on cutting-edge science to dramatically bring to life their lost world and illuminate their enigmatic origins, spectacular flourishing, astonishing diversity, cataclysmic extinction, and startling living legacy.  In addition to tracing the evolution of dinosaurs from their inauspicious start as small shadow dwellers into the dominant array of species we are more familiar with seeing, Brusatte also relays some of the tales of his fieldwork adventures, bringing readers along on the finds of a lifetime and making the world of dinosaurs startling, wonderfully real.  Library Journal gave this book a starred review, declaring it “should not be missed. Highly recommended for the dinosaur obsessed and anyone even mildly curious about the evolutionary importance of these iconic creatures.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–Happy Reading!

From the Teen Room: Beach Reads!

Looking for a good beach book? Prefer reading by the pool? Or maybe you’d rather cuddle up in a well air-conditioned room? We’ve got you covered! Here are the Teen Room’s summer-time recommendations to keep you going even on the hottest of days!

Summer Days & Summer Nights: Twelve Love Stories: Written by twelve bestselling young adult writers and edited by the international bestselling author Stephanie Perkins, will have you dreaming of sunset strolls by the lake. So set out your beach chair and grab your sunglasses. You have twelve reasons this summer to soak up the sun and fall in love.

When Dimple Met Rishi: Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: Carmen got the jeans at a thrift shop. They didn’t look all that great: they were worn, dirty, and speckled with bleach. On the night before she and her friends part for the summer, Carmen decides to toss them. But Tibby says they’re great. She’d love to have them. Lena and Bridget also think they’re fabulous. Lena decides that they should all try them on. Whoever they fit best will get them. Nobody knows why, but the pants fit everyone perfectly. Over a few bags of cheese puffs, they decide to form a sisterhood and take the vow of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

An Abundance of Katherines: On a road trip miles from home, this anagram-happy, washed-up child prodigy has ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a bloodthirsty feral hog on his trail, and an overweight, Judge Judy-loving best friend riding shotgun–but no Katherines. Colin is on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which he hopes will predict the future of any relationship, avenge Dumpees everywhere, and finally win him the girl.

Happy summer reading everyone!

The 2018 Children’s Literature Legacy Award, History, and Inclusivity

At its meeting on Saturday, June 23, 2018, the Association for Library Service to Children Board voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.  This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.  In discussion this award, we’d also like to congratulate this year’s winner, Jacqueline Woodson.  As the committee chair,  Rita Auerbach noted, “From picture books through novels for young teens to her exquisite memoir in poetry, Jacqueline Woodson has established herself as an eloquent voice in contemporary children’s literature.”  Headlines, however, have been focused on the change in the award’s name, and it is that, specifically, we are addressing today.

This was not a decision that was taken lightly, nor was it done for frivolous reasons.  Indeed, there has been a discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s historical legacy and descriptions of native peoples.  As Samira Ahmed wrote in The Guardian in 2010, “While she often writes of her desire to be “free like the Indians”, riding bareback, Little House on the Prairie is built illegally on occupied Osage Indian land.”

A photo of member of the Osage tribe, taken around the time that Wilder was living the experiences she would describe in her books.

The settlement of the American West fundamentally involved the dehumanization of the Native American/Indian peoples who were present on the land that settlers wanted to own.  Part of this process involved talking about Native American/Indian people as less than human.  Wilder utilized this language in her works.  Just one example can be found in Little House on the Prairiewhere she states that  Kansas had “no people, only Indians”.   Such language reflects the delegitimization and dehumanizing that settlers enacted in their move West.   In this specific case, Wilder refers to the Osage peoples.  A series of treaties and agreements from
1865 to 1870 forced the Osage people off the land that a previous treaty, signed in 1825, promised would be theirs in perpetuity.  They were sent to reservations in Oklahoma.  The travel, the lack of funds and support, as well as the violence they sustained impacted the tribes for generations.  Their population decreased by over 50% in the course of a generation.  But this is not merely a historical issue; when oil was discovered on their land, the Osage people were forced to sue the Federal Government over its management of the trust assets, alleging that it had failed to pay tribal members appropriate royalties, and had not historically protected their land assets and appreciation.  The suit was settled in 2011.

Over the course of time, Wilder (pictured at left) gained some insight into the damage such language could have.  Later editions of the book feature an edited line, which reads, ‘no settlers, only Indians’.”  While this edit is a positive change, it is a limited one.  Little House on the Prairie discusses the removal of the Osage people, but never condemns it.  In some ways, this does indeed make Wilder a product of her time.  But it is completely historically inaccurate to assume that her language, opinions, and descriptions represent a universal opinion.  There were a large number of people who spoke out against the removal of Native American/Indian people, and the kind of language that helped facilitate their dehumanization–including Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett, Massachusetts Congressman Daniel Webster, and a large number of missionaries–both male and female.  Additionally, the Osage people continue to condemn Wildler’s work for its language and representation of their history.

A map showing the ancestral territory of the Osage people. The land designated for their reservation is in purple. From

At the same time that Wildler’s work is being re-assessed, book writers, makers, and readers are realizing how poorly non-white, non-male readers have been represented, not only in terms of the types of books produced, but the authors who are honored by awards.  We’ve covered some of that debate here at the Free-For-All, but the ALA has also engaged in some soul-searing conversations.  These don’t condemn Wilder or her work, nor do they comment on the quality of her novels.  However, they do think meaningfully about how naming an award after Wilder might affect the ways readers see their engagement.

Changing the name of the award is part of a process that involves facing the problematic aspects of American history, and attempting to do better by current and future generations. It is part of a commitment to ensuring that readers have access to books that speak to them: to their identities, to their history, to their experiences, and to their abilities, and to recognize the ways they have been under-represented previously in an open, honest, and effective manner. To continue to award a prize named after someone who did not recognize the humanity of the non-white people around her makes a lot of the positive changes we see in children’s literature feel ultimately disingenuous.

For the record, no one–not I, not the Free-For-All, not the Library, and not the ALA are accusing Wilder of intentional hate speech or overt racism.  Indeed, her attempts to moderate her own words points to her potential to change and improve.  And we are actually enjoying a rich moment where Wilder’s history, experiences, and struggles are being honored and remembered in a new, and for more nuanced, way (see last year’s Pulitzer-Prize-Winning biography by Caroline Fraser).  But by renaming the award that previously bore her name, the ALA is acknowledging the harmful stereotypes that she used and promoted, and attempting to move beyond them.  In doing so, it allows us to create room to consider authors contemporary to Wilder who were not using the kind of language she did, and promoting their words, their message and their principles.  So doing can only enrich our literature by recognizing inclusion and diversity, as well as help those readers who have been outside our gaze for so long.

Peabody Library Summer Staff Selections! (Part 3)

Every year, we at the Free For All ask the Peabody Library staff about the books, films, and music recordings that they would like to recommend to you for your summer reading/viewing/listening pleasure, and every year, we are delighted with the variety, the diversity, and the genuinely excellent recommendations that we receive.  We will be offering suggestions over the course of the summer, beloved patrons, in the hopes of helping you find a new favorite story to savor over the coming summer months.  Feel free to share your favorites with us, as well!  As our public services desk model has changed, you’ll note the headings on our recommendations has changed, as well.  Please feel free to speak with any Library staff member about finding a book to brighten your summer.

From the Public Service Desk:

Himself by Jess Kidd: Having been abandoned at an orphanage as a baby, Mahony assumed all his life that his mother wanted nothing to do with him. That is, until one night in 1976 while drinking a pint at a Dublin pub, he receives an anonymous note implying that she may have been forced to give him up. Determined to find out what really happened, Mahony embarks on a pilgrimage back to his hometown, the rural village of Mulderrig. Neither he nor Mulderrig can possibly prepare for what’s in store.  From the moment he arrives, Mahony’s presence completely changes the village.  The real and the fantastic are blurred as eager books fly and chatty ghosts rise from their graves with secrets to tell, and local preacher Father Quinn will do anything to get rid of the slippery young man who is threatening the moral purity of his parish.
From our Staff: This book is indefinable in the best of ways: it’s part murder mystery, part ghost story, with a love story and some small-town shenanigans built in for good measure.  There’s literally something here for everyone, and the storytelling is pure magic.

From the Teen Room:

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness: Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd’s gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.
From Our Staff: It’s an incredible beginning to a very exciting series. Honestly the world building is incredible and immersive to the point that you feel part of the story. I also think it’s an important book to read because it has a lot of parallels to today’s political climate.

From the Upstairs Offices:

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy: As she drives her mobile library van between villages of Ireland’s West Coast, Hanna Casey tries not to think about a lot of things. Like the sophisticated lifestyle she abandoned after finding her English barrister husband in bed with another woman. Or that she’s back in Lissbeg, the rural Irish town she walked away from in her teens, living in the back bedroom of her overbearing mother’s retirement bungalow. Or, worse yet, her nagging fear that, as the local librarian and a prominent figure in the community, her failed marriage and ignominious return have made her a focus of gossip. With her teenage daughter, Jazz, off traveling the world and her relationship with her own mother growing increasingly tense, Hanna is determined to reclaim her independence by restoring a derelict cottage left to her by her great-aunt. But when the threatened closure of the Lissbeg Library puts her personal plans in jeopardy, Hanna finds herself leading a battle to restore the heart and soul of the Finfarran Peninsula’s fragmented community. And she’s about to discover that the neighbors she’d always kept at a distance have come to mean more to her than she ever could have imagined.
From Our Staff:  The audio book recording of this novel is terrific, as well, so fans of either format will be able to savor this story!


Let the Great World Spin by Collum McCann: In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground.  In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary: Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.  Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy summer reading!

Six Book Saturday!

It’s always a sad day here at the Free-For-All when we can’t bring you our regular Five Book Friday review of the new books that are partying on our shelves….so in order to make things up to you, beloved patrons, we’re going to celebrate Six Book Saturday this week, providing you an extra helping of new reading material!  We hope this makes up for the lack of new books in your life yesterday!

The Grey Bastards: Jonathan French’s gritty, occasionally gruesome, adrenaline-fueled fantasy adventure is being hailed as an ideal escapist novel for all those pining away for further episodes of Game of Thrones.  “Live in the saddle.  Die on the hog.”  Such is the creed of the half-orcs dwelling in the Lot Lands. Sworn to hardened brotherhoods known as hoofs, these former slaves patrol their unforgiving country astride massive swine bred for war. They are all that stand between the decadent heart of noble Hispartha and marauding bands of full-blood orcs. Jackal rides with the Grey Bastards, one of eight hoofs that have survived the harsh embrace of the Lots. Young, cunning and ambitious, he schemes to unseat the increasingly tyrannical founder of the Bastards, a plague-ridden warlord called the Claymaster.  When the troubling appearance of a foreign sorcerer comes upon the heels of a faceless betrayal, Jackal’s plans are thrown into turmoil. He finds himself saddled with a captive elf girl whose very presence begins to unravel his alliances.  Not for the faint-of-heart, critics are nevertheless raving over this novel that makes the traditionally villains of fantasy into the most unlikely of heroes.  Kirkus Reviews gave this book a starred review, calling it “A dirty, blood-soaked gem of a novel [that reads] like Mad Max set in Tolkien’s Middle Earth…powered by unparalleled worldbuilding, polished storytelling, and relentless pacing. A fantasy masterwork.”

The Lost Vintage: A story about taste, memory, history, and self-discovery, Ann Mah’s book is being recommended far and wide for fans of Sweetbitter and The Nightingale.  To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last chance. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, she travels to Burgundy to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations.  But no sooner does she arrive than Kate discovers a hidden room, and a long-buried secret in her family’s past.  Her investigation takes her back to the dark days of World War II and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great–half aunt who was a teenager during the Nazi occupation.  As she learns more about her family, the line between resistance and collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection? Bon Appetit magazine wrote a glowing review for this book, noting “Fans of World War II historical fiction have a new title to add to their book club reading list this summer….You’ll easily start and finish the entire book in the span of a long weekend.”

There There: Tommy Orange’s new book is making ‘Best Of’ lists across the country for its searing, emotional portrayal of an America that few of us have the chance to know–the life within Native American/Indian culture.  This book introduces readers to twelve vibrant, empathetic ‘Urban Indians’ living in Oakland, California, whose lives come together at the Big Oakland Powwow.  Orange gracefully reveals each character’s reasons for attending the Powwow—some generous, some fearful, some joyful, some violent—all while spinning the novel to a shocking, yet somehow terribly inevitable conclusion that will change each of their lives.  This is a book about identity, nature, beauty and rage, that copes with the issues of addiction, abuse, and suicide with which the Native American community is forced to grapple, as well as a searing study of their endangered and precious culture.  Library Journal was just one outlet to give this novel a starred review; in that, they called this novel “Visceral… A chronicle of domestic violence, alcoholism, addiction, and pain, the book reveals the perseverance and spirit of the characters… Unflinching candor… Highly recommended.”

Room to Dream: Fans of Twin Peaks, and David Lynch’s other challenging, beloved, and intriguing works will no doubt find something to love, question, and explore in his unexpected memoir.  Lynch’s lyrical, intimate, and unfiltered personal reflections are accompanied by biographical sections written by close collaborator Kristine McKenna.  These sections are based on more than one hundred new interviews with surprisingly candid ex-wives, family members, actors, agents, musicians, and colleagues in various fields who all have their own takes on the moment that Lynch describes.  As a result, this hybrid biography/memoir is weird, colorful, challenging, and thoroughly rewarding, especially for Lynch’s fans.  As The Irish Times noted in its review, “ultimately, Room to Dream does provoke wonder, and advocate dreaming, and further questioning, as all of Lynch’s best artistic work does.”

What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an 

American City: Flint was already a troubled city in 2014 when the state of Michigan—in the name of austerity—shifted the source of its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Soon after, citizens began complaining about the water that flowed from their taps—but officials continued to insist that the water was fine. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the city’s public hospital, took state officials at their word and encouraged the parents and children in her care to continue drinking the water.  But a conversation at a cookout with an old friend, leaked documents from a rogue environmental inspector, and the activism of a concerned mother raised red flags about lead—a neurotoxin whose irreversible effects fall most heavily on children.  This book is Dr. Mona’ s quest to provide and release proof of the Flint water crisis to the world, of an immigrant, doctor, scientist, and mother whose family’s activist roots inspired her pursuit of justice, and a riveting, beautifully rendered account of a shameful disaster that became a tale of hope.  Booklist gave Dr. Mona’s book a starred review, celebrating its power and saying: “Told with passion and intelligence, What the Eyes Don’t See is an essential text for understanding the full scope of injustice in Flint and the importance of fighting for what’s right.”

History of Violence: On Christmas Eve 2012, in Paris, the novelist Édouard Louis was raped and almost murdered by a man he had just met.  This act of violence left Louis shattered; its aftermath made him a stranger to himself and sent him back to the village, the family, and the past he had sworn to leave behind.  This book, a fascinating non-fiction novel that explores the event, Louis’ own past, and the homophobia of the society in which the assault occurred, is drawing comparisons to Truman Capote’s In True Blood for its searching portrayal of Louis’ story, as well as the effects that his experiences had on his family and friends, as well.  Publisher’s Weekly wrote a deeply respectful review of this powerful and challenging work, describing how “In this moving autobiographical novel . . . Louis’s visceral story captures the overwhelming emotional impact and complicated shame of surviving sexual assault.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

A Spineless Study, Part 2!

Once again, we are delighted to have Ashur present another fascinating blog post on the beauty and wonder of the invertebrates around us, and the texts that can help you get to know and respect them more!

Greetings again dear readers! A couple of weeks ago we (very broadly) featured marine invertebrates; today, we turn our attention to terrestrial invertebrates. I’ve narrowed it to “multicellular/non-microscopic terrestrial invertebrates”, as single-celled organisms will be visited in another entry. Once again, consider this a shamefully brief highlight reel, as logistics unfortunately do not allow me to give these creatures the books-worth of blog attention they deserve.

Opalescent flower beetles Photo:

“Terrestrial invertebrates” largely means insects, arachnids (spiders) and perhaps the most-maligned category of invertebrates this side of viruses, bacteria and parasites that cause disease. However, it also includes certain “charismatic” insects such as butterflies, lady bird beetles (or “ladybugs”), dragonflies, scarab beetles, and the the invertebrate poster child for insect concern, the bees. But why do we have such visceral reactions to invertebrates, especially when it comes to physically touching them? And why are some people completely taken with them? One of the books I profile (The Infested Mind) below goes into this in great detail; for now, here is an interview with the author, Jeffrey Lockwood, in Popular Science.  


Returning to the topic of bees, if you’ve seen any of the popular campaigns dedicated to (honey)bee preservation, perhaps you’ve wondered why they’re endangered. The answer is somewhat complex, but can be boiled down to colony collapse disorder, parasites, other insects that are destructive to honeycombs, viruses, poor nutrition and pesticide effects. The natural diet of bees comes from a wide variety of flowers. In situations where the hives are being kept in mono-crop growing areas (places where only one type of plant is being grown) for their pollination services, bees’ diet is less nutritious, leading to an overall weakening of bees’ immune systems, which in turn causes them to be more susceptible to some of the threats listed before. Bees are a key link in agricultural systems, so the stakes are high. If the plight of bees strikes a chord within you and you feel moved to do something, you may want to check out this book by Rob and Chelsea McFarland, focusing on urban beekeeping (pictured at left).

Finally, it’s worth noting that bees don’t deserve our attention only for the key role they play agriculture (for humans) and flora in general (for everything else); they’re able to coordinate their activities and communicate through dance and vibration and of course, their ability to both play soccer and to teach other bees how to play soccer too.

Pivoting from bees, consider the creatures who’ve generously provided the soundtrack of many a summer (depending on your location, of course): the cicada. Luckily for us, Dan Mozgai runs the definitive all-things-cicada-website: Cicadamania. Mozgai’s site includes regularly-updated sightings and maps for when and a where a brood will be or is emerging, so you can easily see if you’ll soon be hearing their high-pitched whine off of local trees.

A freshly-molted cicada emerging from its shell.
Photo is from

It seems we always circle around towards the actions and habits of Charles Darwin. While I cannot say if this is standard practice for entomologists in this day and age, Darwin was known to store specimens in his mouth so they couldn’t escape if his hands were otherwise occupied, possibly with more specimens. Unfortunately, he once did this with a bombardier beetle, a type known for their ability to expel a noxious hot liquid as defense. Observe:

“The Bombardier Beetle and Its Crazy Chemical Cannon”, by Deep Look. KQED San Francisco and PBS Digital Studios.

But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting; for I did not dissect them, and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.
(Autobiography (Darwin, F., 1887; Vol. 1: 50) Darwin Online)

Papilio chikae chikae, the Luzon peacock swallowtail butterfly, can only be found at elevations below 1500 m in the western Cordillera Central mountains in the northern part of the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
Image taken by Anaxibia, Wikimedia Commons

While perhaps not comparable to Darwin’s beetle-collecting fervor, some insects are so sought-after that there exists black market trafficking of them. Out of the two major categories (fauna and flora) listed on the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) website (which regulates international trade of flora and fauna), invertebrates are by far the largest group represented in the “fauna” category. While their reasons for endangered or threatened status (and degree to which they’re endangered) varies, certain species of invertebrates can and are indeed being poached by a variety of actors, as this article details. In 2017, Chinese courts convicted and fined a ring of butterfly smugglers engaged in the trade of such species as the Luzon peacock swallowtail, which can fetch prices upwards of $1,500 US. Stag beetle keeping (and fighting) is a popular pastime among some in Japan that’s largely practiced DIY-style (catch your own beetles!), but desire for rarer beetles has resulted in poaching, smuggling and consumers willing to pay inflated figures for particular specimens.

Have you ever felt a need to see a stag beetle bout in the streets? Click to fulfill that goal.

Also of note is that insects as food is a growing market, both now and in future projections. While this includes humans to a degree, it’s estimated that this market will experience the most growth in terms of insects as food for animals and fish that are raised for human consumption.

Planarians, our kind-of immortal friends and companions!

Before we go to our books, I didn’t want to let insects hog the limelight entirely in this post, this breaking news about adult pluripotent stem cells in planarians was reported this week; in slightly older news, planarians are also allegedly invading France.

Planarians are flatworms that live both in water and on land. In addition to being cute in my opinion, they have been described as immortal: cut off a piece of a planarian and it will regenerate. Moreover, the piece of the planarian that you cut off will also generate into a new planarian. As you can see, they’re very cost effective if you wish to create your own army/society of them.

On that note, let’s take a look at today’s book recommendations for readers needing more invertebrate information in their lives, a description which applies to more people than it does not.

The Infested Mind: Why Humans Fear, Loathe and Love Insects, by Jeffrey Lockwood: The human reaction to insects is neither purely biological nor simply cultural. And no one reacts to insects with indifference. Insects frighten, disgust and fascinate us. Jeff Lockwood explores this phenomenon through evolutionary science, human history, and contemporary psychology, as well as a debilitating bout with entomophobia in his work as an entomologist. Exploring the nature of anxiety and phobia, Lockwood explores the lively debate about how much of our fear of insects can be attributed to ancestral predisposition for our own survival and how much is learned through individual experiences. Drawing on vivid case studies, Lockwood explains how insects have come to infest our minds in sometimes devastating ways and supersede even the most rational understanding of the benefits these creatures provide. Dr. Lockwood has also authored a number of other books about insects, including Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier and Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War.  

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey: In a work that beautifully demonstrates the rewards of closely observing nature, Elisabeth Tova Bailey shares an inspiring and intimate story of her encounter with a Neohelix albolabris-a common woodland snail. While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches a wild snail that has taken up residence on her nightstand. As a result, she discovers the solace and sense of wonder that this mysterious creature brings and comes to a greater understanding of her own place in the world. Intrigued by the snail’s molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making, hydraulic locomotion, and courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, offering a candid and engaging look into the curious life of this underappreciated small animal.The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a remarkable journey of survival and resilience, showing us how a small part of the natural world can illuminate our own human existence, while providing an appreciation of what it means to be fully alive. Winner of the 2010 John Burroughs Medal, the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award (Natural History Literature category) and the 2012 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing ( and the non-fiction category).  

Insect Lives: Stories of Mystery and Romance from a Hidden World, by Erich Hott & Ted Schultz offers an entertaining and informative survey of the human fascination, dreadful and otherwise, with insects diabolical and divine, from accounts in the Bible and Aristotle to the writings of Charles Darwin and the great nineteenth-century naturalists sending home accounts from the rain forest. Highlighted here are observations from E. O. Wilson, Jean-Henri Fabré, David Quammen, May Berenbaum, Roger Swain, William Wordsworth, A. S. Byatt, Gary Larson and more than sixty other writers who tell of the mystery and romance of that other, hidden world beneath our feet and beyond our rolled-up newspapers.

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles, by Arthur V. Evans and Charles L. Bellamy: Do you like pictures! Here is the beetle book you’ve been waiting for, even if you didn’t know you were! An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles is an authoritative reference in a breathtakingly beautiful volume, one that will leave every reader with a deeper understanding, appreciation, and–yes–fondness for these amazing creatures and their place in nature. In terms of numbers, beetles are the most successful creatures on earth: about 350,000 species of beetles have been described since 1758. They range from tiny to gigantic, occupy sundry habitats, and eat everything–plants, animals, and their own remains. And, as this book beautifully demonstrates, the aesthetics of beetle design are amazing. The fantastic colors and shapes of these creatures warrant the gorgeous color photography lavished on them in this book.


Until next time, dear readers!

Peabody Library Summer Staff Selections! (Part 2)

Every year, we at the Free For All ask the Peabody Library staff about the books, films, and music recordings that they would like to recommend to you for your summer reading/viewing/listening pleasure, and every year, we are delighted with the variety, the diversity, and the genuinely excellent recommendations that we receive.  We will be offering suggestions over the course of the summer, beloved patrons, in the hopes of helping you find a new favorite story to savor over the coming summer months.  Feel free to share your favorites with us, as well!

From Circulation:

Mr. g by Alan Lightman: Once before time existed, Mr g woke up from a nap and decided to create the universe. In the shimmering Void, where he lives with his Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, he creates time, space, and matter. Soon follow stars, planets, animate matter, consciousness,and intelligent beings with moral dilemmas. But the creation of space and time has unintended consequences, including the arrival of Belhor, a clever and devious rival. Belhor delights in needling Mr g, demanding explanations for the inexplicable, offering his own opinions on the fledgling universes, and maintaining the necessity of evil. As Mr g’s favorite universe grows, he discovers how an act of creation can change everything in the world—including the creator himself.  This is a book that eschews traditional creation stories and religious dogma, instead choosing to marvel at the wonders around us, and the stunning beauty of even chaos itself.
From our Staff: I am halfway through “Mrg” and I can already tell this is going to be one of my favorite books of all time. This was the one I sent Mo’s way and they have been bugging me to read it ever since. I’ve never read read a piece fiction that spoke so beautifully about physics and nature.

From the Upstairs Offices: 

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich: Set on and around a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation,Louise Erdrich’s first novel tells an epic story of the intertwined fates of two families: the Kashpaws and the Lamartines.  Told in a number of real, empathetic voices, this is a book where black humor mingles with magic, injustice bleeds into betrayal, and bonds of love and family marry the elements into a tightly woven whole that pulses with the drama of life.  This specific edition has been updated by Erdrich herself.  As she notes, “I have worked over a few small sections that were added in 1995, but the biggest change is this: I have deleted one of the chapters (“Lyman’s Luck”) added in the 1995 expanded edition, and moved another (“The Tomahawk Factory”) to the P.S. section at the back of the book”–a fascinating opportunity for fans of the book to enjoy it anwew!

From the Children’s Room: 

The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure by Shoba Narayan:  When Shoba Narayan—who has just returned to India with her husband and two daughters after years in the United States—asks whether said cow might bless her apartment next, it is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between our author and Sarala, who also sells fresh milk right across the street from that thoroughly modern apartment building. The two women connect over not only cows but also family, food, and life. When Shoba agrees to buy Sarala a new cow, they set off looking for just the right heifer, and what was at first a simple economic transaction becomes something much deeper, though never without a hint of slapstick.
From our Staff:This is great for a bit of summer escapism. Narayan moved back to her native India and found an unexpected acquaintance in a woman who sells fresh milk and keeps cows. This is a story about their friendship, but Narayan also examines Indian culture with humor and sensitivity as she parses what led these two women together but also to lead vastly different lives.

From Reference:

Beneath a Ruthless Sun : A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found by Gilbert King: In  December 1957, Blanche Bosanquet Knowles, the wealthy young wife of a citrus baron, was raped in her home while her husband was away.  She described her attacker as a “husky Negro” , and the sheriff, the infamous racist Willis McCall, did not hesitate to arrest every Black male in the area.  Within days, McCall turned his sights on Jesse Daniels, a gentle, mentally impaired white nineteen-year-old.  Jesse was incarcerated in the state hospital for the insane, locked away without trial.  But crusading journalist Mabel Norris Reese refused to stop questioning over the case and its baffling, unjust outcome. Who was protecting whom, or what? She pursued the story for years, chasing down leads, hitting dead ends, winning unlikely allies. Bit by bit, the unspeakable truths behind a conspiracy that shocked a community into silence begin to surface.
From our Staff: King does an impressive job creating a world in this book, discussing all the characters, relationships, secrets, and prejudices that shaped this world.  As a result, readers can’t help but feel both infuriated and utterly heartsore over the crimes that ruined Jesse Daniels’ life–and the lives of so many other Black men and women, as well. The parallels and connections to our own historic moment are chilling, as well.