Boston Book Festival!

Today, Beloved Patrons, we wanted to take a moment to remind you that this weekend is the Boston Book Festival, perhaps the greatest literary event within driving distance you can possibly attend.


The whole event, which has been going on for seven years now, takes place in and around Copley Square in Boston (The Copley or Arlington stop on the Green Line).  There are sensational panel discussions from literary greats such as Louis Sachar (author of Holes, and Sideways Stories from Wayside School), Libba Bray (author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Beauty Queens), and Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid’s Tale and the recently released The Heart Goes Last) .  You can see the full schedule here.


There are also book vendors, from some delightful independent bookstores like the Barefoot Books and the Brattle Book Store, fun writer’s groups, quirky bookish related exhibitors, spoken word and musical performers, food trucks (yummy, yummy food trucks!), and LOTS &LOTS of books!


Best of all, save for a few ticketed events, this whole mad, moving, intellectually stimulating day in the sunshine surrounded by books is TOTALLY FREE.

So get yourself out and enjoy all that the Boston Book Festival has to offer.  We’ll be bringing you some updates next week!

The Iliad: An Update

Hi Homer!

Remember that time I told you about the 16-hour marathon reading of The Iliad that I attended in London?  For those of you who haven’t been forced to listen to me go on incessantly about how this was perhaps the coolest thing I have ever witnessed, you might want to consider yourselves lucky…..but for those of you who might have liked to have been there, I am happy to inform you that The Almeida Theatre is a great institution.

They have put the entire marathon reading online for your viewing pleasure!  Yay!



In case you don’t have 16 hours to devote right now to seeing the entire presentation, you can also read the Introduction that was delivered by Professor Simon Goldhill of the University of Cambridge, and watch this five-minute trailer that gives an overview of the whole day, as well as some insight and reactions by those involved in the production (you can, apparently, also see my Big Giant Head around 3:16).

The full set of readings will be available online until September 21, 2016, so enjoy!  And to the Almeida, should you ever read this, thank you, not only for the event, which was unforgettable, but for letting me share it!


Making History

Our patrons, I’m sure,will know that books still have–and will always have–the power to change and challenge the world, but last week was an especially fruitful one for books in the news: we were treated to the awarding of the Man Booker Prize, as well as the announcement of the National Book Award nominees; but we also encountered some controversy.

36374313651769It all began last Monday on the BBC Radio 4’s morning program, Start the Week.  The show’s guests were both authors whose books had recently been released: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, whose book, Golden Age rounds out her Last Hundred Years trilogy, and Professor Niall Ferguson, whose latest release is the first volume of his authorized biography of Henry Kissinger.  Things were going pretty civily, overall, until Smiley began to articulate what she saw as the difference between history and historical fiction: “history and memoir tell us what happened, but novels tell us or have a theory about how it felt”.

On the whole, this seems to be a perfectly sensible statement, and one that also allows the existence and necessity of both genres.  Her statement, however, didn’t sit particularly well with Professor Ferguson, who immediately launched into a defense (mansplaining?) of non-fiction history, sadly, at the expense of historic fiction.

I’ll let the resulting debate, as recorded by The Telegraphstand for itself:

niall_jpg_2129056b“Historians are as much concerned with how it felt – the difference is we are actually basing it on research rather than our imaginations,” Ferguson said.

An affronted Smiley replied: “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t base it on research? I didn’t realise that.”

But Ferguson continued: “It seems to me that whether you’re reading Tolstoy or Jane Smiley, people who write historical fiction are telling you what it must have felt like. But that’s not what it felt like, because essentially they’re projecting back, in this case early 21st century ideas, on imaginary characters.”

Smiley: “How do you think that I discovered what it must have felt like? I did research and read what people said it felt like.”

Ferguson: “But your characters are imaginary, Jane. Not to disparage what you do, but we need to recognise that it’s different because these aren’t real people. You’re just telling us what these imaginary people must have felt…Historians are in the business of reconstituting past experience but from primary sources, from things that people wrote down. We’re not allowed to just make it up.”

Smiley, ultimately, had the last word in this debate, however, when she published a letter in The Guardian addressing both Professor Ferguson’s comments and elaborating on why she writes historic fiction:
Jane-Smiley-009“I do not consider literary forms to exist in a hierarchy; I think of them as more of a flower bouquet, with different colours, scents and forms, each satisfying and unsatisfying in its way, but if there is one thing that I do know about history, it is that it must be based on the author’s theory of what happened. He or she may change the theory as the research is completed, but without a theory, and if the research doesn’t fit into the theory, then the text has no logic, and therefore makes no sense. If it makes no sense, then readers will not read it.”

As a historian, as well as a reader, I would just like to state here and now that “what happened and how it felt” are, generally speaking, two totally and completely different things–neither are ‘better’ or ‘worse’–they are just very, very different.

It’s probably fair to say that getting injured in war hurts, regardless of whether it’s 1148, 1916, or 2015–but I would never conjecture to tell you how it hurt.  Even more importantly, I would never, ever, ever, put on my Historian Hat and presume to tell you what it felt like to watch the Titanic sink, or what, precisely, goes through a person’s mind as they wait for a battle to commence, or watch a sunrise.  One can infer a good deal by virtue of being part of the same species, and generally be afraid of things that might kill you, or interesting in colorful, shiny things, but I think it’s fair to say that is as far as one can go.

And that, as Smiley notes, is part of the beauty of historic fiction.  By virtue of being fiction, these stories can go where history simply can’t–into the moments that don’t make it into the archive, into the minds of people whom history didn’t remember, and into the hearts of those who didn’t record their feelings to paper.  By virtue of the research performed by their authors, they can bring a period of time to life in a way that history has neither the space nor the time to do.  A straight-up history of the First World War can describe uniforms and trench conditions, but historical fiction can take the time to linger on details–the scratchiness of wool tunics in the July sun, the smell of sweat and carbolic power, what men experienced putting them on…  What to history might be some atmospheric detail is the stuff of life for fiction.  And because of this, they can serve as an ideal compliment to history, feeding our imaginations and hearts, as well as our brains.

 Don’t believe me?  Come in and check out these sensational historic fiction books for yourself!

3104313Vlad: The Last Confession:  I’ve gone on (and on) about how this is one of the greatest books ever, so I’ll spare you today.  C.C. Humphreys, however, originally intended to write a biography of Vlad Dracula.  However, when he couldn’t find any new sources, he decided to write a fictionalized biography, using all the details he learned to create a fully three-dimensional world and an enthralling portrait of a man who was both a monster and a hero–and what it was like to love and hate him.

2057534Speaks the Nightbird: Though Robert McCammon’s tale of witchhunting is set in the Carolina colony in 1699, this is still quite a timely suggestion.  The sights, smells, fears, and superstitions that fill the world of this book are completely transporting, and makes the battle of laws and wills that ensues over the fate of an ostracized widow in the community that much more intense.  McCammon may be a bug name in the horror genre, but this book, and the resultant series, proves he can tackle historical fiction with equal aplomb.

3092040The Return of Captain John Emmett: Speaking of the First World War, Elizabeth Speller’s debut novel is an evocative and occasionally stunning pieces of historic fiction that captures, in heartbreakingly simple prose, what everyday life was like for those who survived the war.  Though not as successful as a mystery, the stark descriptions of grief, loss, and utter bewilderment that her characters endure helps readers understand the true impact of the war on an individual, as well as a collective basis.

Book Birthdays: Moby Dick

download (2)One hundred sixty four years ago today, Herman Melville’s masterpiece was released in Great Britain, four weeks ahead of its publication in the United States.  Since that time, Melville’s book has widely come to be accepted as one of the greatest–if not the greatest–work of American fiction.  But the reviews that graced the London press in the late October of 1851 were hardly generous in their praise.

“This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. ” Stated the London Athenaeum.  “The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed….”  Meanwhile, the London Spectator complained, “The chapter-spinning is various in character; now powerful from the vigorous and fertile fancy of the author, now little more than empty… phrases… it repels the reader instead of attracting him….Melville’s mysteries provoke wonder at the author rather than terror at the creation; the soliloquies and dialogues of Ahab…induce weariness or skipping”.

Mr. Melville himself

It is true that some  reviewers were smitten with Melville’s use of language and the philosophical nature of his work; the London John Bull mused, “Who would have looked for philosophy in whales, or for poetry in blubber?”  On the whole, though, Melville’s work didn’t receive a very warm welcome to the British market; readers expected adventure, excitement, and some racy fun from Melville, whose work, up to this point, was largely sea-faring adventures of the dime-novel variety.  The philosophical tone, intense passages of description and contemplation, and the general darkness of the book turned many off.  However, a good deal of the criticism directed toward the book initially wasn’t really Melville’s fault at all.

whaleInternational copyright laws didn’t exist in 1851, so books that were published in one country could easily be pirated and printed in another, largely without issue.  One of the few only ways to avoid having your own work stolen from under your nose was to arrange to have a book printed in Britain (where it would then be protected under British copyright laws) and swiftly publish it in the United States before merchant ships could bring the book across the Atlantic (where printers often waited on the docks to collect new books from England) to be pirated.  Unfortunately, Melville was not the most time-conscious of authors–he was nearly a year late, and almost $700 in debt to his American publishers with the book–and as a result, he was writing the final scenes while proof-reading the earlier pages that were sent back from the publisher.  With time being so scant, Melville barely had time to get his dedication to the printers, and never had time to change the title; what we now know as Moby Dick hit the British market with the title The Whale, a rather unremarkable and far less memorable title, indeed.

Type-setters were also notorious for playing fast and lose with the author’s work; words or sentences (or chapters) that were deemed too sexualized, politically dangerous, or potentially blasphemous  were removed without notification–as a result, nearly 1200 words were removed from Melville’s manuscript, in which characters and narrators blame God for acts of human error, any mention of sex, prostitutes, or Queequeg’s underwear was cut out, and all of Chapter 25 disappeared, as it satirized the British monarchy.  All in all, more than 600 differences exist between the British and American editions of Moby Dick, from omitted text to typos to grammatical and punctuation mis-prints.

moby_dick_1But perhaps the most egregious error of all was the fact that the book’s Epilogue, detailing Ishmael’s miraculous survival (spoiler alert?), never made it to the first British edition.  As a result the London Spectator was forced to ask, no doubt echoing the concerns of many readers, “not only is Ahab, with his boat’s-crew, destroyed in his last desperate attack upon the white whale, but the Pequod herself sinks with all on board into the depths of the illimitable ocean.”…So, as Dublin University Magazine asked “how does it happen that the author is alive to tell the story?”

Taken in this light, it’s a bit more understandable why Moby Dick met with such harsh reactions, poor sales (hardly 300 copies of the first 500 books were sold), and hastened Melville’s decline into literary obscurity.  Though the book did much better when published in the US four weeks later, it wasn’t until the early 1920’s that critics began recognizing Melville’s work for the genius that it truly is.

So come and savor the full and complete version of Moby Dick today, take some comfort in knowing that even the greatest works of literature, and their remarkable authors, need a little extra time to get it all right.3105370

Saturdays @ the South: Diversity in Books


This past week, various social media channels exploded over a controversy about the representation of marginalized children in literature. Some were saying that there are plenty of books out there about diversity, while many others decried that, despite what is out there already, there are not nearly enough. I won’t reproduce the arguments or participants here, as some of the links I provide will give you some background so you can decide for yourself how you feel about it. What I’d like to focus on instead is the concept of voices in literature and the rights of all readers to relate to someone in a story. This isn’t the same as banning books. Banning means stifling voices that are already out there. Today’s post is about voices that haven’t been heard yet, voices that often don’t appear on people’s radar to prompt a challenge.


Earlier this year, Myles Johnson, not finding quite the right story already out there, and instead of waiting for the world of literature to catch up, created his own story. Johnson led a successful Kickstarter campaign to publish his book Large Fears about a young African-American boy who loves pink and in an attempt to seek acceptance wants to journey to Mars. Many are finding this story a breakthrough because it’s a unique voice that hasn’t been represented (or if it has, it hasn’t been represented enough) in books. Blogger Crazy Quilt Edi was one of them and wrote an impassioned entry about what this book meant to her and her community at large. And she talked about voices and young people not having the tools to sustain themselves during tough times because books with relatable voices weren’t there to help them.

Voices in literature are important. Regardless of who they represent, they are the voices we cling to when we need comfort  or need to see something of ourselves in the world when it seems like the world doesn’t recognize who we are. I’ve been extremely lucky in my reading life to have found voices that seem like they speak directly to me, or offer to take me away into a world where it didn’t matter that I was different because differences either didn’t matter or were celebrated in that book’s world. Sometimes those voices were from people just like me; other times they were from characters who were nothing like me, but still somehow seemed like they understood me just the same. These were the books that sustained me, the stories that helped me through the difficult times in my life and the voices that carried me across the threshold of difficulty into something more hopeful. I am fortunate because I found these voices and every bit as fortunate to know that these voices were already out there for me to find.

Not everyone is as lucky as I have been to find voices who sympathize, who understand or who simply echo some of your own thoughts. These are the voices that give us the tools to deal with some of the joys and hardships that life throws our way. The world is vast and despite technology making it smaller, that doesn’t mean that every voice has been heard. The world of literature is almost as vast, but that doesn’t mean that every voice has spoken. People are entitled to a vast array of opinions, but that doesn’t mean that every voice has been recognized. Readers have the right to find a piece of themselves inside a book. Children deserve to see a face they recognize in a picture book. Teens deserve to recognize their own problems in characters’ struggles. Adults deserve to recognize pieces of their life in literature. If that voice isn’t out there yet or isn’t spread far enough for people to hear it, then somewhere there’s a reader who hasn’t found their literary connection and that’s tragic. Not necessarily because that reader hasn’t found a favorite book (although that is heartbreaking to me) but because that reader hasn’t been able to find an emotional tool to sustain themselves when they truly need it the most.

Some of us are lucky to be sustained by voices in books that have already been heard or accepted, but that doesn’t mean that everyone can find relatable literature out there. We need diverse books because we owe it to ourselves and to everyone to encourage new voices to be heard. Literature doesn’t need to have an agenda to connect with readers. It only needs to have a voice that others can share or use for themselves when they feel like they have no voice of their own.

In the spirit of unique and underrepresented voices and diversity in literature, here are some selections to consider that are in no way definitive or exhaustive:

3554591A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

This 2015 Man Booker Prize-winning novel presents a different perspective in award-winning literature, becoming the first Caribbean writer to win the esteemed and coveted prize. James’s epic novel looks at Jamaica over the last three decades, giving a new, modern voice to to the Kingston of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

3652539Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

In this collection of honest essays, Jenny Lawson becomes a new voice for mental illness, expounding upon her philosophy to live live “furiously happy” enjoying the moments when she can live life to the fullest and forgiving herself when that can’t happen. She looks unflinchingly at her problems in the hopes that others might benefit from her struggles and be able to “come out the other side” but does so in an irreverent, hysterically funny way that forces anyone reading it to reconsider the stigma of mental illness. In laughing and encouraging us to laugh with her she creates a safe, palatable space to consider some of life’s darkest thoughts.

3514048Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman

This empowering picture book of a little boy who likes traditional “girl things” in addition to traditional “boy things” speaks not only to those who are gender nonconformists, but also to those who don’t understand some of the struggles they face. It takes a realistic look at those who want everyone to conform to their ideas of what people “should” be and those who want to be free to explore their individual tastes unencumbered by stereotypes.

3171183Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

This heartfelt tale of identity tackles issues of family, homosexuality and Mexican heritage, while giving voices to those still struggling to find their place in the world. Saenz writes “to be careful with people and words was a rare and beautiful thing.” This is precisely why diversity in books needs to be encouraged and why this multiple award-winning book should be recognized for it.

2435655Code Talker: A novel about the Navajo Marines of World War II  by Joseph Brunchac

This novel takes the view of two Navajo teens enlisted by the Marines to become Code Talkers, using their native, ancestral language that was disparaged throughout much of their youth, to send secret messages during World War II. Though this story is fiction, it’s based on the real Code Talkers who helped end the war in the Pacific with their uncrackable code.

This weekend, dear readers, I encourage you to seek out a book that has an unexpected or underrepresented voice. The recognition of diversity breeds understanding and compassion and those are qualities we can never have enough of. You never know, you may find something in that new voice you didn’t even know was within yourself.


A Frightening Five Book Friday


In honor of our month-long celebration of All Hallows Read here at the Library, this week’s Five Book Friday will be showcasing some of our favorite creepy, ghoulish, and eerie books that we have on display for you this month (scary books have the best adjectives).  Some of these books are tried-and-true, staff-approved scary-stuff, and some are new, both to the library, and to us, but all of them are just itching to meet you, and to send chills down your spine….

3578839Trigger Warning : Short Fictions and DisturbancesIt would simply be poor form not to start our list with a book by the creator of All Hallows Read, and author of you loveliest nightmares, Mr. Neil Gaiman.  Though this collection is a wild compendium that revisits several of Gaiman’s previous novels, like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Laneand also provides plenty of new mysteries, adventures…and a really unsettling tale about Click-Clack the Rattlebag, who holds the secrets to all the things that make noise in the night….Newcomers to Gaiman’s marvelous imagination are sure to be enthralled, but for fans who have had a taste of his work, or who follow him on social media, there is a world of fun to be had in this book.

3562382Through the WoodsAs we mentioned in one of our posts with staff recommendations, Emily Carroll’s work is a chillingly beautiful blend of words and images that reinvents the graphic novel, and breaths new life into those wonderfully dark stories that kept you up at night as a child…monsters in the forest, voices in the shadows…The Irish Times raved “Carroll has a mainline to the reader’s psychic pressure points, the kind of fears and phobias that go all the way back to the cave. She also has the confidence to let her images do the work when it best serves the story … It’s a beautiful artefact, confidently written and lavishly designed. Just don’t bring it to bed.”

259122920th Century GhostsJoe Hill may be Stephen King’s son, but his work, without a doubt, stands on its own merits (he specifically took a pseudonym in order to let his work fly or sink on its own).  This book of short stories has overtones of King’s more visceral horror stories, but also shown influences from Lovecraft, Kafka, and Poe, at times, as well.  Overall, Hill tends to be a bit more aggressive in his storytelling than his Dad, but it’s clear he inherited the writer’s gift.  These stories, which range from a human-turned-locust who plagues his Nevada hometown to a ghost who perpetually haunts an old theater, are moving, frightening, and powerful by turn, making it a read that is sure to linger, even after all the Trick-or-Treaters have gone home.

3553458The Supernatural Enhancements: If you hadn’t been able to tell from the multiple posts on this book, Edgar Cantero’s debut novel is instantly addictive and thoroughly unforgettable, and a quick favorite among our library staff.  When A, a youngish European man, inherits a house from an uncle he never met, he blindly moves to Point Bless, Virginia along with his enigmatic friend Niamh, who is mute, but far from silent.  As the two begin to explore the odd house, and the legacy of A’s tortured family, readers are treated to a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a mystery, a bit of a thriller, and a surprise ending that leaps out and pounces.  Told through letters, transcriptions, and descriptions from the video surveillance cameras Niamh sets up around the house, no one is quite sure what is going on, but this only enhances the suspense of this terrifically gripping tale.

3143152The Fall of the House of Usher and Other TalesWe round off our list with the master of the horror genre, and the mascot of All Hallows Read himself, Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories have scared, fascinated,and disturbed generations of readers. While the titular tale is the perennially haunting one of a house that is gradually consuming its cursed inhabitant, this collection also features Poe’s Dupin stories, which helped inspire the creation of Sherlock Holmes, as well as The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, an adventure tale straight out of your wildest nightmares.  Mostly, though, these are Poe most well-known, and most unsettling stories to keep you up late tonight…

Happy Reading, Beloved Patrons, and Happy All Hallows Read!


Wednesdays @ West: Nothing says Autumn quite like…

applespiceteaapple spice tea, apple cider donuts and a cozy chat about books.  That’s right book lovers, last Tuesday was the fall inspired Literatea at the West.  For the latest book news and books highlighted by library staff, check out the October Newsletter.

Here’s what the Literatea attendees having been reading recently:

lovesongofqueeniehennessyThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy  by Rachel Joyce, which is the companion piece to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.  Both works are highly recommended by the ladies of Literatea, who suggest you read Harold Fry first.


codetalkerSince one of our topics this month was teen literature that adults can love too, Code Talker by Joseph Bruhac got an enthusiastic recommendation.



pariswifeThe discussion of Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, which was recommended in September by Dale at the West Branch, continued.   The general agreement seems to be that this one is an enjoyable read, but not quite as good as McLain’s The Paris Wife.

wivesoflostalamosSince the West Branch afternoon book group read The Wives of Los Alamos by Tara Shea Nesbit for October, that title came up for discussion.  Some of our Literatea ladies very much enjoyed the way it was written (using the first person, plural “we” throughout the book) and others gave it a big thumbs down.  Is there anything more intriguing than a book people can’t agree upon?

whenbookswenttowarWe also talked about the other title being read and discussed by a West Branch book club this month was When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning, which is a fascinating look at the role that ideas, censorship and most importantly books played in World War II.  It’s a title that would be of interest to anyone who loves books or history (and really, who does that leave out?).

wrightbrothersSpeaking of titles that will appeal to the history buffs among us, The Wright Brothers by David McCullough also gets and enthusiastic thumbs up for its readability and the intriguing story of these famous, yet not well understood Americans.


grandmothersorryA few other titles were mentioned as worthy of adding to your reading list: The Sea by John Banville, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, We Never Asked for Wingby Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry both by Fredrik Backman.

Well that’s all for the October Literatea, dear readers.  Literatea will be on a bit of a break for the next few months.  To hold you over until we return, you can take a look at the newsletters for past Literatea events and, of course, keep reading Free For All!

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