Happy Birthday, Rex Stout!

It’s a good few weeks for literary birthdays, with Louisa May Alcott’s last Sunday, Mark Twain’s and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s on Monday (who saw the adorable Google Doodle dedicated to Anne of Green Gables?), and Rex Stout’s today (and there are more yet to come!).

Rex Todhunter Stout was a wizard words, a devil at mysteries, politically active, deeply concerned with issues of civil liberties and censorship and, not insignificantly,  is one of the very few gentlemen who could pull off facial hair like this:

 

Rex Stout, age 35
Rex Stout, age 35

Seriously, this beard should be reason enough to earn this guy a Wikipedia entry…..but, incredibly, he actually lived up to his facial hair with a life that went from Incredible Story to Incredible Story….

Born in Indiana on December 1, 1886, Stout was one of nine children, and raised by Quaker parents who were devoted to their children’s education–apparently, young Rex read the Bible twice by the age of four, and was the Kansas spelling bee champion at age 13.

From such illustrious beginnings, he joined the Navy in 1906, and served a yeoman of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht…pictures, of course, or it didn’t happen:

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Though Stout had written for most of his life, he began making a career out of writing in about 1910, penning pulp fiction stories for popular magazines.  These stories ranged from science fiction to romance to action-adventure…and two serialized murder mysteries.

It turned out that Stout enjoyed writing mysteries.  After a decade of working to make money, during which he served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Council on Censorship in 1925, he decided to return to mysteries, and in 1934, published Fer-de-Lance, a mystery featuring a private investigator named Nero Wolfe, and his assistant, the long-suffering and thoroughly charming, Archie Goodwin.

Wolfe and Goodwin would go on to become one of the most beloved mystery-solving duo in literature, and the collection of their adventures, who was comprised of 33 novels and about 40 novellas written between 1934 and 1975 won the nominated Best Mystery Series of the Century at Bouchercon XXXI, the world’s largest mystery convention.  Incidentally, Stout was also nominated as the Best Mystery Writer of the Century.

Hughes_Fer-de-lance-by-Rex-StoutFor those who have yet to encounter the delightfulness that is Nero Wolfe, allow me to introduce you.  Nero Wolfe is a massively overweight man (according to Archive Goodwin, he weighs “a seventh of a ton”) who was apparently born in Montenegro and who, gloriously, is always 56 years old.  Wolfe is a man of habits, almost obsessively so.  He refuses to leave his house–actually, he refuses to move–for anyone’s pleasure but his own.  He is a fanatical orchid-grower, and beer aficionado.  And honestly, this description makes him sound rather maudlin–but through the eyes of Archie Goodwin, he becomes a wonderfully loveable curmudgeon.

Archie Goodwin is, pure and simple, one of the best sidekicks in all of literature.  He is clever, street-smart, caustically sarcastic, dapper, sweet, and a narrator par-excellence.  It is Goodwin who makes this series so attractive, and Goodwin who keeps Nero Wolfe from taking himself too seriously, so that we can enjoy him, too.

Apart from this series, though, Rex Stout created Dol Bonner, one of the first female private detectives in 1937, who continued to appear in the Nero Wolfe books through the years.  Think about that…how many female private detective novels have you read?  Rex Stout knew we needed more of them 78 years ago.

PelhamDuring the Second World War, Stout joined the Fight for Freedom organization, and wrote propaganda for the American War Effort.  After the war, he moved to an estate in New York and became a ‘gentleman farmer’, and fostered a life-long friendship with P.G. Wodehouse (pictured at right), who created Jeeves and Wooster.  They were so close, in fact, that Stout actually appears in the Jeeves and Wooster novels–it turns out Bertie Wooster and his Aunt Dahlia are fans.  So you don’t have to take my word for it….

And yes…he rocked that beard for the rest of his life:

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If you want to get a little better acquainted with the wonderful works of Rex Stout, here are some suggestions:

1345075Fer-de-Lance: The book that introduced Nero Wolfe and Archie Godwin to the world.  This story begins with Wolfe giving up bootleg beer and sending his cook, Fritz, to find a suitable replacement (setting the book 2 months after the sale of certain beers was legalized again in the United States).  But the action really started when a local blue-collar investigator, Fred Durkin (who would become a recurring character) brings a woman to Wolfe whose husband has disappeared after coming into a great deal of money.  Though the characters in this book aren’t all as well-developed as they would become, Wolfe and Goodwin are vivid, unique, and delightful from the very start.

3179608Nero Wolfe: Back when A&E was a TV powerhouse, they adapted a number of Stout’s stories for television, starring Maury Chatkin as Nero Wolfe, and Timothy Hutton are Archie Goodwin.  The writing and scenery are spot-on in these stories, but better than anything is the casting.  These men are precisely what I pictured when reading the books, and their banter together is pitch-perfect.  Though nearly a decade old, these are shows that just get better with viewing, and would make an ideal binge-watch for a lazy holiday weekend.


2986506Son of Holmes
: Fans of Sherlock Holmes will love John Lescroart’s spin on the cannon, and the introduction of Auguste Lupa, the son of Sherlock Holmes.  Though how that all happened is (thankfully) obscure, these stories are historically detailed, engrossing, and have the same understated emotion and razor-sharp insight that make the Holmes stories so terrific.  Why am I mentioning this book here?  Because, rumor has it, Lescroart intended Auguste Lupa not only a sequel to the Sherlock Holmes stories…but a prequel to the Nero Wolfe stories.  That’s right…Lupa and Wolfe may very well be one and the same.  Which, now that I know that, is going to necessitate an immediate re-reading.

Happy Birthday, Louisa May Alcott (and Bronson, too!)

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There’s been lots of talk lately in the bookish sections of the internet discussing feminism in YA novels, and how fiction can teach young women (and older women, and men, and all the humans, really) how feminism can make the world a better place.  We’ve even had a few chats about the subject here.  And this is fantastic.  But it’s also important to remember that feminism in YA literature isn’t a new thing…Louisa May Alcott was a feminist before it was cool.  Which is a joke, obviously, because it’s always cool to be a feminist.  And Louisa May Alcott is very, very cool.  As was her father, Bronson Alcott, who was also born on this day.

Alcott was born on this day in 1832, the second of four daughters born to Abigail May Alcott, who was from a prominent Boston Brahman family, and Bronson Alcott, who is one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned idealists of the 19th century.  Bronson was a dreamer, yes, but he was a man who practiced what he preached.  Did that earn him a lot of money?  No, it certainly did not.  Did it earn him the respect of his family?  Yes, it very much did.

053Bronson was a Transcendentalist, which, essentially, means the belief that there is a “divine spark” in everything in nature–that all living things carry a bit of their creator inside them.  For that reason, Bronson was a very early vegan, consuming no animal products at all.  He was also a staunch abolitionist, taking in at least one slave that we know about, and asking that slave (whose name was John) to talk to his daughters, so that they could learn first-hand about the issues going on in their world.  He was also a pioneering educator, developing a curriculum that was geared toward making children want to learn and think for themselves.  He was fired several times for his progressive teaching practices…which involved asking children what they thought about lessons, and engaging them in discussions on a regular basis.

While Bronson may have not made a steady paycheck doing what he did, he married a strong woman who was more than willing to help out by getting a job of her own at a halfway house for abused women in Boston.  Together, they raised four strong, independent daughters who weren’t afraid to be precisely who they were.  Louisa’s own life story shows the success of their parenting and the lifelong support they provided.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshotLouisa’s first book, published when she was sixteen, was a collection of fairy tales, called Flower Fables, and though she was exceptionally proud of her work, the hard truth was that she needed to make money to help out her family.  Then (as now), scandal sold much more than fairy tales.  So Louisa wrote what she called “pot boilers”–short stories full of murder, disguises, illicit passion, drug use, and general mayhem–mostly under various pen names.  When the Civil War broke out, Louisa volunteered as a nurse, beginning in December of 1862.  Though she only served for six weeks before contracting typhoid pneumonia, she saw, felt, and remembered enough to write the book that would begin to make her a household name: Hospital Sketches was the first work Louisa published under her own name that achieved commercial success, and she followed that success with Work, which discussed how industry was changing job opportunities for women.

4cd89a9d4c84f9d19ac5d12ed9c7e9beAnd, of course, there is Little Womenthe book that finally gave the Alcott family financial independence, and earned Louisa fans than span some six generations.  Her heroines, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, were, as you might know, based on Alcott and her sisters.  But one of the things that isn’t too often discussed is how much her father’s teachings run through each page of the book.  None of the Alcott sisters are perfect, but rather than hide their shortcomings, or bad habits, they talk about them openly with each other, and find strength in the support of their family.  None of the women feel that they must marry in order to be successful–they marry for love, even if that means financial hardship, or, in Jo’s case marrying a man who is significantly older (and completely awesome).  And, most of all, each woman in the book works to live life on their own terms, whether that is as a mother, a writer, a caretaker, or an artist.

These were all lessons instilled in Louisa by her father.  So today, take a minute to celebrate one of the most remarkable father-daughter duos in American history…better yet, come in and check out some of their work!

2360641The American Transcendentalists: For those looking to get to know the Transcendentalists better, this is a terrific place to start.  From Emerson to Thoreau, from Alcott to Fuller, there is a wealth of insight in these pages, ranging from issues of feminism to abolition to the beauty of nature.  Particular for our cause today, there is also a section from Bronson Alcott’s “Controversial experiment in progressive education : part two”, which got him fired from his teaching job, but is still used by teachers today as a model for engaging kids in the classroom.

2190335Alternative Alcott: For those who have only read Little Women, this volume is a great introduction to all the other wonderful things that she wrote over the course of her very full life.  Hospital Sketches and Work are both here, as well as Transcendental Wild Oats, a story of her family’s experiences living on an experimental farm  called Fruitlands in the 1840’s, and a few of her Gothic romances, just to keep things interesting!  More than anything, this volume highlights Louisa’s immense range and insight, and the introduction frames these works beautifully.

2335435Little Women: Seriously, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’ve seen grandmothers and mothers and dads, too, share this book with their daughters, friends chat about it…it was even featured in an episode of Friendsin which we learn about “freezer books”-but that is a topic for another blog post.  Suffice it to say, this book has more than earned its reputation as an American classic, and should continue to be read.  Also, it features Theodore Lawrence, who was my first love.

2071688Louisa May Alcott: A Biography:  There are a lot of lousy biographies of Louisa and her family out there.  This is not one of them.  Read this one.

 

Saturdays @ the South: Books I’m Thankful For

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Yes, Thanksgiving is over and we’re likely all still a bit drowsy from Thursday’s turkey-coma (or possibly the Black-Friday shopping coma; no judgment), but I still think this weekend is a good time to reflect. It’s early enough in the holiday season that we can still take a breath and pause. Besides, once the holidays really get going, we’ll barely have enough time to read, let alone reflect on our reading lives.* With that, dear readers, I give you a brief list of books that I haven’t yet mentioned but I’m thankful to have read. The list isn’t exhaustive and these books haven’t all been published in 2015, but they were all devoured by your devoted Saturday blogger at some point this year:

7873989As Always, Julia edited by Joan Reardon

I didn’t love Julia Child as a kid. While I would occasionally tune in with my grandparents if “The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show” got preempted and we were killing time before “Candlepin for Dollars,” on a Saturday, she didn’t win my young heart the way she did so many Americans. My grandmother found her diction insufferable and considered some of her television cooking practices to be wasteful. However, the more I learned about Julia Child through biography, cookbooks and memoirs, the more she grew in my esteem. Let’s face it, Julia Child was an immensely cool lady and this book highlights her tenacity, entrepreneurship and humor wonderfully. The evolution of a friendship through letters is a hugely satisfying way to get to know someone posthumously and this book gets more delightful with each passing correspondence.

23705512You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

It’s a rare treat when I can devour an entire book in one sitting. The book has to be both compelling enough to keep me page turning and light enough to not bog me down. This book fit the bill perfectly. As a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, I recognized Day from her recurring role in the seventh and final season, and her show The Guild has been in my Netflix queue for over a year, but I had no idea how smart and interesting she was overall. She’s well rounded, eloquent and entirely relatable. This is an easy but satisfying read as you look into the life of someone who isn’t afraid to share her neuroses and a few humorous anecdotes but still remain genuine and vulnerable as you keep turning pages.

18594409Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

This book is an amazing, honest, humorous work that can appeal to anyone who: a) has parents; b) has conflicting commitments; c) worries about the future; or d) enjoys a good belly laugh. Chast’s memoir, told graphic-novel style looks at her relationship with her parents during their final years and the joy, stress and heartache it can cause. Like most good humorists, she delves into the pain and difficulty of those times, but manages to temper it and find the laugh in a sometimes impossible situation. Be prepared for some genuine tears mixed in with your laughter, but it’s definitely worth the read.

23848124A Wild Swan by Michael Cunningham

This is a great book hangover cure. It’s a quick read of re-told fairy tales, but with dark, modern twists. Cunningham blends time and genre as he peels back the curtain and speculates: what might become of these fairy tale characters in modern times?; what happens after the traditional ending we all know? or even what some well-known characters motivations might have been? It’s not a long book, but its beautiful, haunting prose and modern themes give you a lot to think about.

20981000The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

OK, so I’m sort of cheating here as this book has been mentioned on the blog before, but it hasn’t technically been reviewed here. If possible, I *highly* recommend reading the audiobook as it has exactly the type of bonus material we at the blog love. It’s narrated by Palmer and the listener winds up with a deep sense of intimacy with the subject and the author. Plus, she sprinkles some of her music into the narrative which gives a broader perspective of the content in general. I walked away from this book wanting to be a more open, trusting and hopeful person and, really, couldn’t we all use a bit of that in our lives?

This year, I’m thankful for all the books I’ve read, listened to, finished and given up on (yes, that happens even to the most devoted of readers…) as they weave into the fabric of my reading life and become a part of who I am. I’m thankful for the incredible friends in my life to whom I can talk about books (and just about anything else) and get fantastic recommendations that I might not have considered otherwise. I’m also deeply thankful for all of you: the readers, watchers, listeners, patrons who make the Peabody Library such a wonderful place to be. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving weekend!

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*Don’t worry; you’ll still be able to come to the blog for all things bookish, interesting and wonderful during the holiday season. We at the library always make time for reading, even if it’s carving out just a few minutes in a day.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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True story:  When I was four, my mother brought me to the children’s room of the Library and signed me up for my Library card. She told me to sign it using my best handwriting, because that’s what grown-up ladies got to do.  Hence the stellar script in the picture above.

The Librarian behind the desk was very, very friendly, and talked to me about the books I had picked out, and how much I loved to read (and the fact that I refused to check out a book until I had read it cover to cover first).  Before I left, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

“I want to be the lady who works behind the desk at the Library!”  I answered.  My second choice was to be Maleficent, but I left that part out.

So today, I just want to thank the Peabody Library for making that long-ago four-year-old’s dreams come true.  And my thanks too each and every one of you, for making each day so memorable.

(And thanks to my Mom, who told me I could have all the books I wanted from the Library, and didn’t mind when I read every single one of them before leaving.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

“Everything will turn out right, the world is built on that.”


This week, The Guardian published an article reporting that the city of Moscow had finally (finally) approved a monument to one of it’s most under-appreciated, and controversial, authors: the great Mikhail Bulgakov.

The proposed memorial
The proposed memorial

Bulgakov was born on May 15, 1891 in Kiev (then part of the Russian Empire, now the capital of Ukraine), and originally trained to be a doctor, a job he performed well until he nearly died of typhus was working as an army doctor during the Russian Civil War.

Mikhail-BulgakovFollowing Stalin’s rise to power, Bulgakov was living in Moscow, eking out a living as a playwright.  Though he always favored science fiction, and tended toward the weird in his writing, he was also a ruthless satirist, which earned him a good deal of criticism, including from Stalin himself, who alternatively condemned Bulgakov’s work and praised it.  Truthfully, this wasn’t an uncommon tactic–Stalin may have been brutal and ruthless, but he was also demoniacally clever, and delighted in keeping those under his thumb guessing, often for years on end.

Stalin’s intervention meant that nothing Bulgakov wrote would ever be published or performed for the rest of his life.  Haunted and heartbroken, Bulgakov began writing the book that would make him immortal.  Inspired by his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, he began penning The Master and Margaritaa book about the arrival of the  Devil in Moscow.

2273126It is physically impossible to sum up this book properly in this space, but, essentially, there are two plotlines–one is the story of the Master, a writer who, after composing a novel about the interrogation of Christ by Pontius Pilate, casts his book into the stove and is eventually incarcerated in a lunatic asylum.  His beloved, Margarita, decides to risk everything–life, limb, and soul–in a conspiracy with the Devil and his enormous talking cat, Behemoth.  The second plotline is that of the Master’s book, which features Christ and Pilate locked in an eternal struggle over truth.

Every scene in the book is a thinly veiled critique of Stalin’s purges, described in a way that brings out the real, personal, emotional agony of this time, and emphasizing the near inhuman courage it took simply to get up and live your life everyday.  Indeed, the Devil (who, in this book, goes by the name of Woland) isn’t the villain of this piece.  His justice is perverted to be sure, but even he bewildered by the petty, inane levels of evil that persists in Moscow everywhere he looks.  Though his meddling brings total chaos to the city, it also brings retribution is some of the most satisfying, heart-rending, and blood-chilling scenes you’ll read.

[One of the sketches for an unrealised animated feature based on Bulgakov’s novel by Sergei Alimov]
[One of the sketches for an unrealised animated feature based on Bulgakov’s novel by Sergei Alimov]
Despite all this, Master and Margarita is a funny book…pitch-black funny, admittedly–and it’s one of the most uplifting, redemptive, hopeful books you will ever read.  It is also mind-bendingly bizarre, with a number of scenes feeling like a hallucinatory fever-dream of color and shadow.  I have read this book five times in English, and once in Russia, and I’ve cried every time.  I’ve also laughed.  And told random strangers on the Commuter Rail to read the book before they did anything else with their lives….

When Bulgakov read the manuscript to his closest friends, they knew that even hinting about it to anyone in authority would get him killed.  As a result, he hid it in his desk, editing it whenever an idea struck, until his death in 1940 of hereditary kidney disease (by which time, he had been working on the book for twelve years).  It would remain unpublished for over 25 years, and even then, Bulgakov’s wife (the model for Margarita) wasn’t sure which edits were the ones Bulgakov wanted.  As a result, both editions were printed, leading to any number of complications between people who decide to read the book.  It wasn’t until 1973 that the book appeared in Russia, and it was only added to school curriculums in the late 1990’s.

There have been attempts to get a monument to Bulgakov around Patriarch’s Pond (near his house, and also a crucially important setting for Master and Margarita) for years and years.  But Nikolai Golubev, the artist commissioned to create the memorial wants to include characters from the book in his art.  “Life is short, art is long, Golubev is quoted as saying, “Bulgakov didn’t have children, his children are his books. We want to put up a monument to these works, which will outlast me and you.”

….And no one wants to put a statue of the Devil in Moscow.

Woland and Behemoth, from the 2005 Russian film adaptation
Woland and Behemoth, from the 2005 Russian film adaptation

Nor do they want a state of the primus stove, into which the Master threw his manuscript in a fit of despair.  In an open letter to the author, this element was called “a symbol of devildom”…but the truth is, that is perhaps the most hopeful aspect of Bulgakov’s book.  Because, as Woland reminds us “manuscripts don’t burn”.  No matter how hard we humans try to quash each other’s voices, no matter how brutal is the world in which we live, Bulgakov’s book is a reminder that ideas live a life of their own, and that they endure long after we are dust…or statues.  And even if, for now, Bulgakov’s memorial is only a likeness of the man himself, seated on a broken bench, it is a start.  “Everything passes away,” Bulgakov wrote early in his career, “suffering,pain, blood, hunger,pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the Earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars? Why?”

"Manuscripts don't burn", written on the wall of the Bulgakov House Museum
“Manuscripts don’t burn”, written on the wall of the Bulgakov House Museum

 

Genre Talk: On magic, dragons, and friendship…

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I just finished this book. You have to read it. Right now. No, like, right now.

Good friends…they aren’t easy to find in this world.  But good friends are often the ones who show you the sides of yourself that you didn’t know were there, and introduce you to books you might never have read.

Take, for example, an exchange between myself, and our fabulous Saturday Blogger, who goes by the name of Lady Pole.  Unsurprisingly, books are involved in a fair bit of our conversations (and, one book in particular, if you haven’t noticed…).  But after our discussions about genre fiction a few weeks back, Lady Pole, in all her splendidness, went and created a Pinterest board titled “Fantastic Fantasy“, showcasing the fantasy novels we’ve discussed here at the Free For All.*

When she first told me about this board, I was delighted, but also surprised.  Because if you had asked me five minutes beforehand, I would have told you that I wasn’t a big reader of fantasy books at all.

But the longer I looked through the books on our list, the more I began to appreciate just how diverse the fantasy genre really and truly is.  Up until Lady Pole’s intervention, I would have told you that fantasy novels were ones with dragons in them.  Possibly warlocks. And unicorns.  But that was about it.

In the interest of full disclosure, it appears that my definition was limited by the fact that I believe that magic, ghosts, fairies, leprechauns, necromancers, and pyromancy are all completely real–and there’s nothing wrong with this.  But it did impede me from seeing all these great elements as part of an enormous and hugely varied genre that incorporates more than I had personally ever imagined.  (Just a note: these things are real.  Never let a leprechaun hear you say that you think they aren’t real).

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d offer us both a little primer of some of the “subgenres” of fantasy so that you and I could both become a little more familiar with all that fantasy has to offer, and really come to appreciate a genre that re-invents fiction on a daily basis.  (We’re going in alphabetical order here, so as to be fair to all the dragons and leprechauns and unicorns)

2641675Dark Fantasy: This subgenre walks a fine line between fantasy and horror, incorporating elements of both to make for a story that is intentionally frightening, unsettling, and generally creepy.  Charles L. Grant, a pioneer of the dark fantasy genre, defined it as “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding”, though it has also come to be associated with stories from “The Monsters’ Point of View”.  Think H.P. Lovecraft, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and China Mieville’s Kraken.

x1280542a_mHigh Fantasy: Here’s where the dragons and warlocks generally show up.  High fantasy books are generally set in a completely different world from our own; worlds with their own rules and population, that generally tend to be pretty epic in their scope (Tolkien invented a language for his characters).  These are the kind of books that tend to get the “Fantasy” stickers with the glowing unicorn on their spines.  Think J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

2751021Historical Fantasy: Now this is a subgenre with subgenres, making it a bit of a tricky category to cover quickly.  Very broadly speaking, these books tend to take place in a past full of magical/fantastical/paranormal elements.  Sometime that can be a familiar past, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or an alternative past, like Keith Roberts’ Pavane, which is set in a world where the Spanish Armada defeated the Elizabeth I.   They can also deal with fairytales and folklore, as in Bill Willingham’s Peter and Max.  Steampunk, which usually imagines a Victorian world where steam, rather than electricity, became the dominant source of power, also falls generally within this genre.  Check out: Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat, Neil Gaimain’s Stardustor V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.


3153256Urban Fantasy:
Fantasy set in a city.  Obviously.  To be more specific, though, these books tend to resemble in many ways the noir detective stories of the mid-20th century: they frequently feature detectives, private eyes, or guns-for-hire who deal in the paranormal, and they often deal with the grittier side of life, and life in the city.  Case in point:  Mike Carey’s near-perfect Felix Castor series, P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files, as well as Joseph Nasisse’s Eyes to See.   Interestingly, urban fantasy is increasingly becoming a genre of heroines.  Sometimes they find a hero along the way, and sometimes they don’t, but this subgenre is fast carving out a space for female heroines–and authors–to break all the rules, with some fantastic results.  For examples, look for Adrian Phoenix’s Makers Song series, Kat Richardson’s Greywalker novels, and Chloe Neill’s super-terrific Chicagoland Vampire series.

It’s also really important to remember that these classifications are by no means hard and fast.  George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is as much high fantasy as it is historical fantasy.  Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are urban fantasy, but they can be shelved in mystery, as well.  A vast number of steampunk books are shelved as romances, rather than fantasy at all.  My hope here is to help you and me to realize that genres can be as vast and unpredictable and wonderful as the people who read them–and the friends who recommend more!

*This is also a great time to remind you to check out all our nifty Pinterest boards!  You can click the link at the top of this page, or go right here!

On Bibliotherapy


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As many of you lovely patrons know, I am a student of the First World War.  Now, this is not a topic that is generally applicable to everyday life…unless you use a spork on a daily basis.  Because they were first conceived of and developed by the American Army in 1917.  The more you know.

3445458But there are times, rare magical times, when being a First World War historian comes in handy.  Like this week, when The New Yorker published an article titled “Can Reading Make Your Happier?”.  The article is centered around a lovely little book called The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness, written by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin…who are trained bibliotherapists.

What, you might ask, are bibliotherapists?  They are, essentially, practitioners in the art of healing people through books.  Bibliotherapy can take many forms.  Some Churches hold reading circles; prisons offer classes in literature for inmates; nursing homes have book clubs for patients suffering from dementia.  But at the heart of all these groups is essentially the same: to “put new life into us”.

Bibliotherapy has existed, in some form, since the time of the Ancient Greeks, who inscribed over the doors of the library at Thebes that this was a “‘healing place for the soul”.  Freud used literature with his psychotherapy patients (though, admittedly, he was just as concerned with Hamlet’s psychological make-up as he was with his patients…).  But bibliotherapy actually came into its own, and got its name, during the First World War.

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Many military hospitals, particularly those in the US, were equipped with libraries, and doctors actually prescribed reading to their injured soldier-patients as part of their treatment.  This practice was particularly used for shell-shocked patients (men who suffered from the condition we now call PTSD), whose minds were trapped by their memories.  But there are records of doctors prescribing reading course of treatment for civilians, as well.  The New Yorker describes a “literary clinic” that was run in 1916 out of a Church by a man named Bagster.  I was particularly drawn to the description of a man who had “taken an overdose of war literature,” and required bibliotherapy to calm him down.

download (1)There is no cold hard science behind bibliotherapy, but each practitioner offers a similar ideology.  According to the good Mr. Bagster, “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is.”  According to Régine Detambel, an award-winning author who consciously writes pieces to be used in bibliotherapy, “We are all beings of language…There’s a certain rapport between the text and the body that must be considered” she explained, “Books are caresses, in the strongest sense of the term!”

Shirley Jackson wrote in The Haunting of Hill House“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”  And I think, at its heart, that bibliotherapy seeks to offer an antidote to that reality.  For the men like those Bagster mentioned, who had read too much war literature–literature that describes in graphic detail the very real chaos, fear, and anger of the First World War–there was Jane Austen, whose work is not only light and fun, but marked by manners, rules, and justice.

3110938Bibliotherapy also counters reality by offering empathy.  Berthoud mentions a patient of who was struggling with being the single father of a baby.  For him, there was To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel that features another single father, who has to navigate some of the most challenging issues a parent can face.  George Eliot is said to have overcome her grief over her husband’s death by reading fiction with a young friend of hers…who later became her second husband.

Ultimately, bibliotherapy emphasizes one of the most basic purposes of fiction–to remind us that we are not alone, even when the world seems big and scary and overwhelming.  To give us the chance to connect, not only with characters who can help us grow, or help us calm down, or help us learn, but to connect, as well, with other readers.  I owe some of my favorite relationships in this world to books (many thanks, Jonathan Strange), and some of my favorite memories to the stories we shared.

So please know that, no matter how big the world may seem, and how sadder, the library is here to help.  We can’t make it better out there, but we can offer a bit of an escape from the reality outside.  We may not have answers, but we have shelves and shelves of books, filled with countless characters, who are all quite eager to let you know that you are not alone.  We may not have answers, but we have books.  And sometimes, that is enough.

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"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass