Staff Recommendations (once again)!

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I have been known to refer to the library shelves as a “book buffet”, where you can literally take as much as you can carry, and devour as you choose.  It’s such a treat to talk with our patrons and learn what books whet your appetites, which tales had you up late at night, and what story you cannot wait to see appear in our New Releases Section.  It certainly helps us put together our list of To Be Read books (because those lists can never be long enough, believe me!), and often gives us the inspiration to read a story that we never would have previously considered.

In the hopes of repaying your kindness, we love to share our favorite books, as well, in the hopes that they might give you some ideas on your next visit to the book buffet–we hope you enjoy!

From the West Branch…

1795937Mists of AvalonThis retelling of the Arthurian legend by Marion Zimmer Bradley has become a modern-day classic, and for good reason.  This version of the tale, however, is told through the eyes of Morgaine (usually known as Morgan Le Fay) and Gwenhwyfar (the Welsh spelling of Guinevere) as they struggle for power in a strange world where religion and superstition, faeries and knights live side-by-side.  Even readers familiar with Arthur’s legend will find a lot to enjoy here, because while Bradley remains faithful to the cannon, she also reimagines this world and its inhabitants, offering an honest, engaging new perspective on an ages-old story.

From the Director’s Desk…

3206056The Night CircusErin Morgenstern’s smashing debut novel has been described as a book “in which the prose is as beautiful as poetry”, and the characters literally come and live with you, even after you finish reading.  She tells the tale of a circus that appears at night, without warning, and dazzle spectators with its breathtaking spectacles.  But behind the scenes, there is a war being waged between two powerful magicians, Celia and Marco–a war that only one of them can win.  And when Celia and Marco fall unexpectedly, disastrously in love, they kick off a chain of events that will leave no one around them untouched…..This is an addictive fairy-tale with wonderful little historic details and a hyper-detailed world that simply shouldn’t be missed!

From the Circulation Desk…

3537128The Truth About the Harry Quebert AffairI think we’re going to have to talk about this book more, as there is a great deal going on here, and so many references and homages and nods-and-winks to other works of literature that it will keep bibliophiles awake at night.  On the surface, this is a closed-case mystery about a beautiful young girl who vanished thirty-three years ago from a small town in New Hampshire.  When her body is discovered buried in the backyard of a noted professor and celebrated author, old sins begins to surface that changes everything this sleepy town thought it knew about itself.  When the professor’s protege and best friend arrives in town, determined to seek the truth about the case, the result is this book…a scrapbook of memories, full of interviews, recollections, truth and lies that is absolutely fascinating.  I haven’t reached the end yet, but the struggle not to read ahead and find out the truth is killing me!

From the Reference Desk….

51FQp271VkL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice“There are two important days in a woman’s life: the day she is born and the day she finds out why”: This book is unique in format and difficult to describe, but the words on these pages are some of the most powerful I have ever read. Through 54 brief pieces that read like a combination of memoir and prose poem, Terry Tempest Williams explores family, in particular mothers and daughters; nature; spirituality; and what it is to be a woman. The language is beautiful and the message is empowering. For the reader who seeks truth and beauty, strength and love, and a sense of peace and transformation, there is much hope and wisdom here.

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

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Though Labor Day has become known as the unofficial end to the summer vacation season, and a great time to snap up some sales, it’s worth remembering not only the movement, but the men and women who gave meaning to this day–and made life a little easier for a great many of us.

The first Labor Day parade in New York, 1882
The first Labor Day parade in New York, 1882

In 1869, the Knights of Labor organized to become the first formal labor organization in the United States, committed to change the face of American capitalism through education and political debate, meaning that they supported workers’ families, their right to have a life outside of work, and to enjoy that free time in comfort and safety.  It was the Knights who first suggested the idea of a holiday commemorating and celebrating the working class.  They organized a parade to celebrate the achievements of the American workforce–but it would take a number of years and a series of violent, unforgettable clashes before the day became established.

On May 1, 1886, some half a million workers around the country went out on strike in favor of an eight-hour workday.  They marched through the streets carrying signs, chanting, and singing songs.  Two days later in Chicago, strikers clashed with strikebreakers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company.  After union leader August Spies called for (and largely achieved) peace among the crowd, the police opened fire, killing at least two workers (other reports would claim six).

Infuriated by the violence, local anarchists organized a rally in favor of the striking workers, to be held the next day at Haymarket Square.  Speaking that evening, August Spies is quoted as saying “There seems to prevail the opinion in some quarters that this meeting has been called for the purpose of inaugurating a riot, hence these warlike preparations on the part of so-called ‘law and order.’ However, let me tell you…the object of this meeting is to explain the general situation of the eight-hour movement and to throw light upon various incidents in connection with it.”

Indeed, the meeting itself proceeded peacefully until about 10:30pm, when police marched in formation to Haymarket Square and ordered the workers to disperse.  What happened later is difficult to determine; we know that a homemade bomb was thrown from the group of demonstrators toward the police, and the resulting explosion killed Officer Mathias J. Degan and mortally wounding six other officers.  We also know that shooting immediately broke out between the protestors and the police, killing seven police officers and four workers were killed; some sixty more police officers were wounded, but no accurate estimate exists as to how many civilians were injured, as many were too frightened to seek medical attention.

Haymarket_Martyr's_MemorialThe aftermath of the Haymarket incident engulfed the country.  Eight men, including August Spies, were tried for the death of Officer Degan, and sentenced to death in what all contemporary reports decried as one of the largest miscarriages of justice in a generation.  As he was standing on the gallows, August Spies called out to the assembled crowd “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today”, realizing that their loss would spark far more outcry than any rally these men could organize.

On June 26, 1893, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois, signed pardons for the three men who had already been executed, calling them victims of “hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge” and noting that the state “has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it.”

The public, understandably, was furious at the death of these three men, and the division between workers and the government (including the police) continued to rise.  Tensions reached a boiling point in 1894, when a general strike against the Pullman Company resulted in the deaths of some thirty strikers and the injuring of over seventy more, when the National Guard was called into to force workers back to their jobs by any means necessary.  Terrified that public sentiment would erupt into a nationwide general strike in support of the murdered workers, President Grover Cleveland immediately signed the national holiday known as ‘Labor Day’ into effect.  The date was established for the first weekend in September in the hopes of both supporting the Knights of Labor’s original idea, and to separate the day as much as possible from the events in Haymarket and at the Pullman Company.

For those interested in learning more about the labor movement, or some later history of labor in the United States, check out some of these titles:

2348983Death in the Haymarket: James Green does an excellent job describing the events at the Haymarket on May 4, 1886, but also puts those events in a much broader context, tying in the international fear over anarchy and communism, as well as the growing class tensions within the United States.  He describes the subsequent trials of the eight accused men in minute detail, providing a story that is both educational and exceptionally engrossing.

3588493The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom: Lest we forget that unions and organized labor don’t just work in cities and industry, James Green also brings us the story of the powerful companies that thrived on the coal mined from the hills of rural West Virginia–and on the backs of men whose lives were cut short by the diseases and physical conditions they developed in the mines.  Their battle for civil rights and fair labor laws became a national debate that would change the face of the American legal and labor system forever, and Green tells the story in fascinating detail.

1928501Cradle WIll Rock: This is a sensational film, with a terrific cast, that tells the story of some of the most significant moments in 1930’s labor history in America, including the first performance of Marc Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock, the only show ever shut down by the Federal government, partly out of fear that the show would promote ‘Unionism’ at a time when Communist scares were beginning to engulf the country.  This is a fun film with a light touch, but a terribly important message, and the exceptionally accurate portrayal of the debut of Cradle Will Rock is simply unforgettable.

Saturdays @ the South: Book Hangovers

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I know the feeling, kitty…

Book Hangover: (Buk Hang-ov-ur)

a) the inability to start a new book because you are still living in the last book’s world.

b) When you’ve finished a book and you suddenly return to the real world, but the real world feels incomplete or surreal because you’re still living in the world of the book.  (sources: urban dictionary and funsubstance.com)

In the wake of a long weekend giving many extra time to spend with a good book, I thought I’d talk about an experience that I suspect many readers have had, but few may have the term they can use to discuss it. If you’re on Pinterest (and if you’re not, you should be; you can get, among other things, the scoop on the library’s latest orders before they arrive) you may have seen this term pop up a few times. If you haven’t, allow me to introduce you to a new vocabulary term: book hangover. As defined above more formally above, a book hangover is when a book hits you so hard or gets you so utterly engrossed, that you have a hard time pulling yourself out of it. In other words, the book stays with you long after the last page has been turned.
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If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in very good company! There’s something about a really good book that can often make you reluctant to turn that last page, or gets you so engrossed that you end up being surprised when you get to the last page (this happens a lot to me when I read on a Kindle, since there’s no real, physical indication that the pages are getting fewer). Or maybe a book has talked about themes relevant to your life that deeply resonates with you or it talked about something that completely opened up your eyes to a new way of thinking that you hadn’t considered before. All of these reactions (sometimes all within the same book) are not only parts of an enriched reading life, but can all be symptoms leading to book hangovers.
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Well put, Mr. Firth. See? We’re most definitely in good company.

While many people have their own cure for a regular hangover (a particularly famous one here) that may or may not work to varying degrees, a book hangover is a bit trickier. I’m not aware of any particular cure for a book hangover as everyone seems to have their own way to break it. Some dive right into another book.  Some wander around aimlessly staring at their bookshelves wondering if anything else will measure up to what was just finished. Some watch TV to try and get their mind off of it (bonus points for watching the show or movie made from the book you finished- sometimes comparing the two is enough to rally). Some prefer to wallow in the book hangover and ruminate indefinitely, considering the book hangover more of a spell that the book has cast that they’re afraid to break. Everyone has their own method, sometimes the same person might have several methods depending on the book.

While there is no “official” cure (and some who don’t want to be cured), if you are a reader who has experienced a book hangover, no doubt you will eventually venture into another book at some point. Maybe you’ll get that feeling again, maybe you won’t. That’s all part of the excitement of reading life. But regardless how to choose to move on from your book hangover, be gentle, both on yourself and the new book you read. Ease into it and know that even if this new book doesn’t immerse you in the story, it could still be a great, fun read.

Here are a few book hangover-inducing selections that may get you more familiarized with this feeling :

2260048Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

OK, I’m going to get the huge, pink, British elephant out in the open first.  For those of you sick of us singing the praises of this book, feel free to move onto the selections below. For those of you still reading: this book hit me hard. Despite having a solid outline of what was going to happen from watching the mini-series, I was still blown away. This was the type of book that kept me so engrossed I wanted to keep pushing forward, but also one that I wanted to take my time with and savor. Naturally, coming to the end was a bit of a heartache and despite having finished it a month ago and read a couple of books since, I’m still not sure I’m completely over it.

3546892The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

Patron recommendation! A wonderful patron here at the South came up to me, told me how she was still thinking about this book and proceeded to describe the symptoms of what I was able to diagnose as a book hangover. In my mind, that makes it immensely worthy of putting on this list.

3614409Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes

This one caught me by surprise. The book read incredibly quickly, so when I was done, I wasn’t quite sure what happened. It wasn’t a life-altering book, but it was an extremely engaging one, particularly for those who like literary references in their fiction (Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Wollstonecraft and Edgar Allen Poe, among others all make cameos). The ending was a surprise and stuck with me for quite a while after I’d closed the covers.

3414400A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This book had a profound effect on me and sucked me deep into the story and the emotions the characters felt. This was another tough book to come out of and led to many wanderings among bookshelves (both at home and at the library) trying to figure out what to do with my reading self next.

3563980In Search of the Perfect Loaf by Samuel Fromartz

I’ve added this book, in part, because I want to demonstrate how it isn’t just fiction books that can give someone a book hangover. This book made me want to buy a house with a big backyard specifically so that I could install a brick bread oven there. I had all sorts of resolutions about following a path similar to the author’s. Very little came from them, but for the week after reading this book, I was a touch obsessed with learning more about making good bread (or at least buying better bread), so not only did I get a book hangover from this book, but I got a bit of a starch hangover as well!

I’ve somewhat conspicuously left out summaries of the books I listed this week, mostly because, even though I know not everyone will get a book hangover from these selections, if others do, they deserve to arrive at it on their own terms. Books can reach people in myriad ways and I’m not about to dictate what the plot will mean to them or how they might interpret the subject.

Till next week, dear readers, I wish you good reads and safe times over the long weekend!

Five Book Friday!

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Today’s post, Beloved Patrons, is brought to you courtesy of jetlag, that delightful side-effect of hurtling the human body through multiple time zones at hundreds of miles per hour.  Though that description does make returning home sound something like time-travel, which sounds like fun, the actual result is that one knows neither if they are coming or going.  What I do know for sure is that there are new books on our shelves, and a long weekend coming up in which to enjoy them, and it is marvelous to be home and see all of you, and all of the lovely books once again.

Just a reminder that the library will be closed over the Labor Day Weekend, so come in on Friday to pick up your books, and we will see you again on Tuesday, September 8.  The Free-For-All will still be up and running, as ever, though, because we have no idea what time it is, and can’t stop talking about books.

3641140All Together Now: Gil Hornby’s second novel is a surprisingly fun, quirky little book about a group of lost souls who take part in a local chorus, and dare to fulfill their dreams of a region championship.  Though the premise sounds a little fluffy, this book is disarmingly honest, reveling in its characters faults and foibles, making their interactions, and their singing, something that sticks with you.  RT Book Reviews loved this one, calling it “a funny underdog tale that is transporting and yet honest. Best of all, this unique and surprisingly meaningful tale unfolds alongside a soundtrack that is sure to leave readers with a song in their hearts.”

3651672Walking With Abel: Journalist Anna Badkhen built her career on her willingness to travel to the most remote, extreme places on the globe, and in this book, she documents her time with a family of nomadic herders in the Mali grasslands, known as Fulani cowboys.  For the armchair explorer, this book is full of stunning descriptions of the African wilderness, from the Sahara to the Indian Ocean.  For those who savor the human connections that such adventures bring, Badkhen’s experiences within the family that has adopted her are completely fascinating, and their bond surprisingly touching.  The Christian Science Monitor raved, “By the time readers put the book down, they will have done something remarkable: visited a mostly inhospitable but eminently seductive locale alongside a storyteller able to render the strange and different both familiar and engrossing.”

3623461Rose Water And Orange Blossoms: Fresh & Classic Recipes From My Lebanese KitchenFor those who prefer their adventures to be of the culinary variety, we also have Maureen Abood’s delightful new release, featuring the sumptuous flavors of her childhood.  Along with these delicious, and surprisingly easy, recipes are stories and anecdotes about growing up in a Lebanese-American family, and the journey that Abood herself took to become the award-winning chef she is today.

3654427The Drafter: Fans who are aching for a new fix after the conclusion of Kim Harrison’s epic Hallows series will rejoice at the launch of her new series featuring renegade Peri Reed.  The year is 2030, and Peri is a Drafter, a skilled operative able to manipulate time, but cursed to forget every change that she has ever made.  But when she finds her name on a list of corrupted employees, Peri realizes that she, and her history, are being targeted by those in power–but to what ends?  The New York Times had a sensational review of this Jason-Bourne-esque thriller, calling Harrison’s writing “a smoldering combination of Alice Waters and Ozzy Osbourne.”

3644700The Automated AristocratsMark Hodder’s Burton and Swineburne novels are some of the most-well known and genre-defining steampunk novels out there today, and this sixth book brings this stupendous series to a rollicking close.  Sir Richard Francis Burton (a real historical figure, whom Hodder has fictionalized in wonderful fashion) returns from the future with knowledge of all the technological marvels yet to come, but when one of his colleagues turns traitor, Burton and his sidekick Algernon Charles Swinburne (another historic figure reinvented for this series) are forced to watch the Empire topple around them.  Now, leaders of a surviving group of revolutionaries, Burton and Swinburne must find a way to overthrow their automated overlords…at any cost.  For those looking for a wildly inventive, imagination-bending series, start with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, the first in this series, and enjoy Burton and Swinburne’s adventures right through to the end!

 

Postcard from Belfast: Historically Speaking…

Greetings, Beloved Patrons, from the home of Sir Kenneth Branagh, C.S. Lewis, and the RMS Titanic…Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland.

Belfast is a city with quite an…interesting history.  For many, it is a microcosm of “The Troubles”, a period of time from approximately 1968-1998 when ethno-religious conflict tore this area apart and devastated families, lives, and large areas of the city, when tensions between the police/army and citizens reached incendiary levels, and ended in the Good Friday Peace Accord, a landmark, though very tenuous, piece of legislation that established the government still at work in Northern Ireland today.  For others, it is rapidly becoming a major tourist attraction, primarily for the history of Belfast’s ship-building industry, which brought the world the beautiful, doomed Titanic (cue the theme music at your convenience).

I went up to Belfast to check out the Public Record Office, which is a beautiful building on Queen’s Quay, a stunning new tourist development area on the east bank of the River Lagan.  For years, this area was a derelict, very run-down area, but it is rapidly becoming a hub for tourism in the city.  As someone who has studied Belfast and The Troubles for years, this area offers a new future for this city that is full of hope.  This is most clearly embodied in the Thanksgiving Statue, also known as the Beacon of Hope, which was erected in 2007:

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The lady herself is a representation of Ireland, who is traditionally portrayed as a female, while the globe at her feet indicates the universal philosophy of peace and harmony.  The globe itself it marked with the cities to which the people and industries of Belfast migrated and were exported.  It’s an enormous, impressive, and emotional piece of public art that really sets the mood for this area of the city.

Up ahead is the official Titanic Museum, which you can read about here.  Though it isn’t officially open as yet, tourists can still get inside and see the work in progress–and judging from what people are saying, when this place is up and running, it is going to be an incredibly impressive attraction.  The building itself is stunning, catching the light from the river and shimmering in the sunshine (when the sun shines in Belfast, that it is…).   To be honest with you, though, there are a lot of people in Belfast who think the building looks a bit like an iceberg…to the extent that the building has been nicknamed ‘The Iceberg’ by many locals….

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What do you think?

But while these constructions are enormously impressive, and the turn-around this area has experienced are considerable and a justifiable source of pride, it is also very interesting to consider how much history has been forgotten in order to preserve these choice moments in Belfast’s history.

Along Queen’s Quay, there are placards along the railing with quotes about how great Belfast’s ship-building industry is, how hard-working are the Ulstermen of Belfast, and how their work will bring pride to the British Empire.  In the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland, there is a poem by local poet, John Hewitt, called “Ulster Names” that begins:

I take my stand by the Ulster names,
each clean hard name like a weathered stone;
Tyrella, Rostrevor, are flickering flames:
the names I mean are the Moy, Malone,
Strabane, Slieve Gullion and Portglenone.

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Now, part of what I study is the act of memorialization and commemoration, so these things are very interesting to me personally…but nothing here actively remembers The Troubles.  Nothing about the Thanksgiving Statues commemorates those who died.  None of the quotes along the Quay mentions the Catholic, the Irish, or the non-Ulster character of the shipbuilding industry (which was considerable, at least until the mid-1920’s); the poem above obscures as many names as it remembers.  And I couldn’t help but wonder–and worry–as I took all this is: how much must we forget in order to ‘move on’?  What do we lose as we look forward?

It’s certainly an interesting time, and it sounds like there are even more choices to be made in the future, but for now, if you are interesting in learning more about the history of this area, here are some selections for you to consider:

2239078Making Sense of the Troubles:  David McKittrick’s comprehensive, and wonderfully insightful study of The Troubles from the 1920’s onward is a very helpful guide, as a fascinating piece of history.  He introduces themes, context and lingo very well, and generally tries to stay unbiased in his evaluations, making this book a very good introduction to this area, and a time that should be impossible to forget.  A new edition, with the contributions of historian David McVea, should be available in the US very soon.

downloadBelfast Diary: War as a Way of Life: This ‘street-level’ view of the Troubles through the eyes of a man living in a working-class Catholic enclave in Belfast is a heartbreaking, but deeply insightful view into the Troubles, and how heroes could rise out of the most unlikely slums, and how ingrained the violence of this period became for those forced to live through it.  You won’t necessary find the stuff that made headlines here, but this book humanizes this period is a way that you won’t soon forget.

2711697The Ghosts of Belfast: This is one of my favorite books about Belfast, Northern Ireland, the Troubles, and one of my favorite crimes novels in general.  Stuart Neville is one of those authors who can stuff an incredible amount of pathos into the shortest of sentences, and that talent is on full display here.  Fegan was an IRA assassin for years, but now that peace has been declared, he is haunted by the ghost of twelve people that he killed–twelve people who will not rest until they are avenged.

Wednesdays @ West: The Monthly Literatea Rundown

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literateaSince yesterday was the first Tuesday of September, dear readers, it is time once again to turn our attention to the books recommended by the voracious readers who attend the West Branch’s monthly Literatea event.

inthetimeofthebutterfliesSeptember is, of course, the Peabody Library’s Big Read, focusing on Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies.  We have an exciting line up of literary and cultural events planned to celebrate Ms. Alvarez’s novel, so if you haven’t yet checked out the September calendar of events, make that your first stop of the day.

savingtheworldIn honor of In the Time of the Butterflies, the tea for the month was a hibiscus blend.  Hibiscus tea is popular in the Dominican Republic, the setting for our Big Read novel.  Also in honor the Latin American roots of our community read selection, we highlighted some wonderful literature with Latin American ties, including The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros, The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat and Saving the World by Julia Alvarez.   For the complete list of books recommended by West Branch staff at this month’s Literatea, check out our September Newsletter.

As for what our Literatea ladies have been reading and enjoying since we heard from them last, here it is…


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The books of Geraldine Brooks, especially Year of Wonders: a novel of the plague.  There is also much anticipation for her forthcoming, The Secret Chord
(due out October 6th).

remarkablecreaturesRemarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.  This is a suggestion that I enthusiastically second!

Nguernseyear universal love continues for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows continues.

allthelightwecannotseeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

loseyourassHow to Lose Your Ass and Regain Your Life by Kristie Alley

englishgirlThe English Girl and The English Spy by Daniel Silva

importanceofbeingsevenThe works of the prolific Alexander McCall Smith, who is admired for his humor and his books ability to create a sense of calm in readers.

makemeMake Me by Lee Child.  The latest Jack Reacher novel.

typhoidmaryA few suggestions also came up from the world of YA fiction: Terrible Typhoid Mary: a true story of the deadliest cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Where the Stars Still Shine by Trish Doller, This Side of Home by Renee Wilson

couargeinthelittlesuitcaseCourage in the Little Suitcase by Andrea Angell Herzig

orphanmasterssonThe Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

missdreamsvilleMiss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society by Amy Hill Hearth

euphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

In Memorium: Oliver Sacks

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In Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternack wrote that your soul “is the memory of yourself that you leave behind in others”–essentially, that your obligations in this world are to those around you, and to those who will come after you.

If this is true, I can think of few greater souls than Dr. Oliver Sacks, who passed away on August 30, at the age of 82.  Dr. Sacks will be remembered for many reasons; he was a brilliant neuroscientist who made ground-breaking discoveries, not only into the structure, but also the functioning of the human brain; he was a daring practitioner, who was willing to try new and inventive treatment methods if they would prove most beneficial to his patients’ well-being.  Above all, though, he was a teacher, who gave the world a collection of case-studies that not only taught us about the obscurities of the human brain, but also about the wonders of it.

2710517Sacks is perhaps best known for his bestselling book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, a book that details some of Sacks’ most interesting (and bizarre) cases of loss, whether it is patients who cannot remember words (aphasia), familiar faces, or who suffer from ‘phantom limbs’ (which happens when the mind still ‘feels’ a part of the body that has been amputated, creating an itch that literally cannot be scratched, or a pain that cannot be soothed).  Though this explanation makes these essays sound grotesque or somehow invasive, in truth, they are some of the most beautifully written and compassionate medical texts you will ever read.  Sacks truly came to know his patients, to understand their lives and how their conditions affected them, and described them with humanity and dignity.  He also, clearly, delighted in all the inner workings of the brain and the mind, and made that wonder tangible in his writing.  Even in describing the brain when it was broken, his writing makes you respect the wonder and complexity of the human brain.

2670280His other books not only expanded his study of brain disorders, but explored how the brain responses to music, and why music is such a fundamental part of the human existence, and considered how the brain adapts to various conditions, such as autism and deafness.  In each of these works, Sacks’ empathy and humanity shines through, and each of these stories is far more about what it means to be human than what it means to be different.

When he was diagnosed with inoperable metastasized melanoma, Sacks again turned his condition into a chance to reach out and make the inexplicable somehow easier.  He wrote a series of opinion pieces for The New York Times, not just to announce that he had cancer, but to consider the process of living, as well as the process of dying.

In his final article, Sacks explained his own career in his characteristic simplicity: “I found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx…I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly…Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct.”

Oliver Sacks was a consummate scientist, and a consummate teacher; when faced with his own death, he didn’t retreat into himself, or hide from the inevitable–he allowed us to share in the process, teaching us what it was like to die so that it wouldn’t seem as scary, in much the same way he wrote about the brain.  Rather than leaving us with regret or anger, he left us marveling at life, how precious, how remarkable, and how beautiful it was, and offering us a chance to consciously appreciate it, and ourselves for what we can do with it: “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

If that isn’t an ideal memory to leave behind, I don’t know what is.

To learn more about Oliver Sacks and his remarkable work, check out the following:

2029034Awakenings: One of Sack’s first jobs was in that chronic care hospital, where he cared for and observed patients who had been in a coma-like state for some fifty years.  When medical advances offered methods to wake these people up, Sacks chronicled their adaptations (or lack thereof) to the world around them, and his relationships with these patients.

2929901The Mind’s EyeIn this incredibly moving book, Sacks looks at patients who have learned to adapt and thrive despite what would normally be considered cataclysmic losses–the inability to recognize faces, lack of three-dimensional perception, or the loss of reading ability.  While the reasons and diagnoses of these conditions are fascinating, what comes through most in these essays is the incredible endurance of the human mind and soul, and Sacks’ wonder at the strength of the people he treats.  Even as we learn about the ways the brain can go wrong, this is an inspirational book that gives hope in so many unexpected ways.

3633704On the Move:  Though this book was written before Sacks received his terminal diagnosis, it was published after his opinion piece to The New York Times, so it feels like much more of a retrospective than may have been intended.  Nevertheless, Sacks is at his thoughtful, humorous, and gregarious best in this work, sharing his stories and memories, his fears and loves, and, as always, reveling in the human experience.  It is a book worthy of its author, and a life well-lived.

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