When Good Characters Go Blonde…

…As a bit of a preface, I’ve been reading Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane series for years.  Back when I was doing my junior year abroad in London, and I had no money and a bag of potatoes to eat, I stumbled across the first book, Quite Ugly One Morning at my local library, and the utterly crazy twists and turns of the plot kept me spellbound.

For those who haven’t discovered this delightfully smart, insightful, and occasionally, startlingly visceral series, the main character is a journalist named Jack Parlabane, who makes his career by taking on the stories that one else even believes exists, and gets his scoops by breaking in, snooping, and hacking the most seemingly impossible places.  And while all these hijinx are exciting, and some of the situations are wildly, almost absurdly outlandish, what I love is that Christopher Brookmyre makes all his characters real, and flawed (sometimes appallingly so), and, generally lovable (this usually doesn’t extend to his villains, who can be pretty appalling,  in the best of ways.

One of the things I love most about this series is that fact that I have massively disagreed with Brookmyre on a lot of aspects of this series (and if you’ve read it too, I will be delighted to discuss at length).  He has made me so unhappy and so angry that I’ve wanted to challenge him to a duel–but even I have to admit that his choices have made the books better, and richer, and kept the trajectory of the series moving forward with consistent energy.  Moreover, they are choices that fly in the face of a lot of prevailing stereotypes and gender assumptions, and I kind of have to respect that, even if I hate the outcome grandly.

Christopher Brookmyre, creator of Jack Parlabane, for STV Glasgow

…until I found out, in the latest book (which is terrific, by the way, go read it), which is the eighth in this series…that Jack Parlabane is blonde.

For the past eleven years, I have been picturing him with black hair.  No.  Scratch that.  For the past eleven years, he has had black hair.

Now, part of this, I am sure, is because David Tennant* read the audiobook of the series opener, and knowing what Tennant looked like probably influenced my idea of the character looked like.  Maybe I was just willfully blind to any previous description, and I just noticed now something I had missed.  But none of those obscures the absolute shock I felt when I read that.  Like someone I knew personally had somehow betrayed me–not Brookmyre, but his fictional character, Parlabane.

There have been some fascinating pieces written about the way we imagined literary characters.  One of my favorites is Peter Mendelsund’s “What Does Anna Karenina Look Like?”,  an excerpt from his eye-opening What We See When We ReadSome of the things that he mentions in the piece is that our emotional attachment to characters can make us feel like we know them, even if we can’t tell you what their nose looks like…or even if we’ve never imagined their nose.  Or that our clearest conception of a character is based on the sketchiest of details provided to us by the author.

There are even websites that use police composite technology to create sketches of characters.  Brian J. Davis has a whole site devoted these sketches.   And, frankly, very few of them look like the people I know in my head.  Part of this is, no doubt, because police sketches always look a little…weird:

Daisy Buchanan, from https://101books.net/2012/03/28/how-fictional-characters-might-actually-look/

But it also makes me wonder…when and how precisely do characters become something different in our heads than what was in the authors’?  What makes our relationship to an imaginary entity so real that we believe that we know them inside and, specifically, out? By what wizardry is that relationship created?

And what about the characters for whom we don’t have a good understanding?  I’ll be honest, I couldn’t really describe what Rochester looks like.  He is one of my favorite characters, I’ve read him countless times, I know his soul; but I couldn’t really describe his looks to you well enough that you would recognize him on the street.  I’ve watched a whole slew of adaptations of Jane Eyre, and seen Rochester portrayed by everyone from Orson Welles (umm…) to Toby Stephens (hooray!), but none of them look like Rochester to me.  Because I don’t know what he looks like.

But that doesn’t mean I appreciate the character any less–or any more–for that.  He is too real to me for his looks to matter.  Just as Parlabane is so real for me that his looks matter enormously.

I don’t have any good answers or explanations here, dear readers.  I am still grappling with this whole blonde thing to be honest with you.  But it’s got me thinking about what is it about fictional characters that make them real and tangible in our lives, and why that is.  And if anything, it’s made me appreciate those characters–and the authors responsible for them–even more.

Have you ever dealt with finding out your favorite character was different than you pictured, dear reader–be it blonde or otherwise?  How did you react?


*We don’t have this particular recording at the Library, but I cannot recommend David Tennant as an audiobook reader more highly.

Five Book Friday!

And here’s a little factoid for your Quirky History files…

Today is the birthday of sliced bread.

Nom, nom, nom…

Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, United States (pictured below, courtesy of The Woodstock Whisperer), graduated from what is now the Northern Illinois College of Ophthalmology and Otology in Chicago in 1900, with a degree in optics.  He went to work as a jeweler, but used his skills to invent new devices.  Convinced that he could build a machine that could slice a loaf of bread into individual, even pieces, he sold his three jewelry stores to afford the supplies.  Unfortunately, a fire in the factory where he worked destroyed not only his prototype, but the blueprints, as well.

It would take Rohwedder several years to secure the funds needed to build again, but by 1927, he had crafted and tested a machine that not only sliced bread, but wrapped it, as well.  After applying for patents, he sold his first machine to a baker-friend named Frank Bench, who installed it at the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Missouri, in 1928. The first loaf of sliced bread was sold commercially on July 7, 1928.

In advertising their shiny new sliced bread, the Chillicothe Baking Company stated in their advertising that it was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped”.   In 1940, a form of bread consisting of two wrapped half-loaves, called Southern Slice Bread, was advertised as the “greatest convenience since sliced bread”…sound familiar?  A few after Chillicothe made history, Wonder Bread made sliced bread a nation-wide product, which in turn, boosted the sale of single-slice toasters.   So when you’re having your breakfast, or sandwich, or afternoon tea today, feel free to regale your friends and eating companions with today’s fact of the day, dear readers.  I’m sure they’ll all be very grateful.

An add for sliced bread from the Chillicothe Baking Co., Courtesy of The Atlantic

Hey, and speaking of that, you know what else is the best thing since sliced bread?  New book!  Here are some of the titles that have dashed up onto our shelves this week, and are eagerly waiting to join you in your summer excursions!

Scribbled in the Dark: Anyone looking to overcome their metrophobia should look no further than friend of the Peabody Library, Charles Simic’s newest book.  In each of these pieces, all of which are single-serving portions of poetry, Simic manages to combine the mundane, the familiar, and the cosmic and overwhelming, creating poetry that is at once accessible and eye-opening.  Peopled by policemen, presidents, kids in Halloween masks, a fortune-teller, a fly on the wall of the poet’s kitchen, from crowded New York streets, to park benches, these works toy with the end of the world and its infinity, with its ugliness and its beauty. Charles Simic continues to be an imitable voice in modern American poetry, one of its finest chroniclers of the human condition.  Publisher’s Weekly gave this collection a starred review, relishing that “Image by image, Simic composes miniature masterpieces, offering what appears as a seemingly effortless study in language’s cinematic possibilities.”

Kingdoms of Olive and Ash: Writers Confront Occupation: This collection of essays was compiled to observe the fifty-year anniversary of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, organized by renowned writers Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, along with the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence—an organization comprised of former Israeli soldiers who served in the occupied territories and saw firsthand the injustice there.  Each of the essays here, from writers as famous and diverse as Colum McCann, Jacqueline Woodson, Colm Toibin, Hari Kunzru, Raja Shehadeh, Mario Vargas Llosa and Assaf Gavron, goes beyond the headlines and click-bait pieces to understand what occupation means, and the cost it takes on all those involved.  Booklist gave this work a starred review, noting especially its “Dramatic testimonies… radiant with telling details, vital portraits, and explosive facts…. This sensitive, galvanizing, and landmark gathering brings the occupation into sharp focus as a tragedy of fear and tyranny, a monumental failure of compassion and justice, a horrific obstacle to world peace.”

White FurJardine Libaire’s novel is set in the mid-1980’s, a time of big hair and spandex, cultural clashes and divides, and all that neon intensity is reflected in the wild love story at its center.  Although Elise Perez and Jamey Hyde are next-door neighbors in New Haven, they come from different worlds. Elise grew up in public housing without a father and didn’t graduate from high school. Jamey is a junior at Yale, heir to a private investment bank fortune.  But when they first meet, nothing else matters.  They move to Manhattan, eager to start a new life together, exploring Newport mansions and East Village dives, WASP-establishment yacht clubs and the grimy streets below Canal Street, all while fighting to stay together in a world designed to keep them apart.  Like so many books out current, Libaire’s story is as much a love story to the 1980’s as it is about her characters, and her passion for place shines through every page of her book.  NPR agreed, calling this book “A fairy tale of love and class and money and death and New York City in the 1980’s, as seen through eyes so new and so young that everything seems like magic all the time…What holds it together is ferocity — Libaire’s elegant, incongruous, glitz-and-trash command of the language of youth and young love, and the uncompromising fire of her main characters as they drift and dash from page to page.”

The Little French Bistro: Readers who loved George’s The Little Paris Bookshop will be delighted to return with her to France’s idyllic scenery for another tale of self-discovery and delicious food.  Marianne is stuck in a loveless, unhappy marriage. After forty-one years, she has reached her limit, and one evening in Paris she decides to take action. Following a dramatic moment on the banks of the Seine, Marianne leaves her life behind and sets out for the coast of Brittany, where she meets a cast of colorful and unforgettable locals who surprise her with their warm welcome and joy for living.  Gradually, as she begins to remember the parts of herself she thought long gone, Marianne learns it’s never too late to begin the search for what life should have been all along.  This is another book that will seduce you with settings (and food.  Seriously, the food.), as well as the rich personalities that grace these pages.  Kirkus Reviews, specifically noted that it “is as much about indulging the senses with succulent dishes and dazzling sights as it is about romance and second chances. With a profound sense of place and sensuous prose, the novel functions as a satisfying virtual visit to the French Riviera. A luscious and uplifting tale of personal redemption…”

The Best Land Under Heaven The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny: Many of us have heard of the Donner Party, that ill-fated group of travelers who got caught in the Rocky Mountains during a hellish winter…but in this new study, Michael Wallis cuts through the myths and legends that have sprung up around their story to explore who and what the Donner Party actually were, and the historical context of their journey, showing them as a microcosm of the United States at the time.  There’s a great deal that still needs to be discussed about not just the Donner Party, but the concept of Manifest Destiny that drove so many people into areas that were utterly unknown to them, and the unspeakable toll those journeys took on so many lives.  But Wallis has begun that process here in a book that is both empathetic and focused.  The Boston Globe loved this book, noting in the review, “The saga of the Donner Party is one of the most horrific and fascinating events in the history of the American West. A cautionary tale at the time, it becomes in Michael Wallis’s thorough and persuasive new telling…of the more shadowy aspects of Manifest Destiny. . . . [A] welcome update of a nightmarish tale.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Summer Staff Selections!

Now that summer is definitely, apparently (?) upon us, it’s time once again for the Free-For-All to share with you some of our lovely staff’s selections for summer reading!

We are a staff of diverse reading/listening/viewing habits, which makes these posts so much fun.  There is such a wide range of books and media that our staff enjoy that there is bound to be something in here to help make your summer that much more entertaining!  And so, without further ado, here is our fourth round of Staff Selections:

From the Upstairs Office:

Burning Your Bridges by Angela Carter

Angela Carter produced a remarkable range of work over the course of her life, ranging from essays to criticism to fiction. But it is in her short stories that her extraordinary talents—as a fabulist, feminist, social critic, and weaver of tales—are most penetratingly evident. This volume presents Carter’s considerable legacy of short fiction gathered from published books, and includes early and previously unpublished stories. From reflections on jazz and Japan, through vigorous refashionings of classic folklore and fairy tales, to stunning snapshots of modern life in all its tawdry glory, we are able to chart the evolution of Carter’s marvelous, magical vision.

From the Reference Desk:


Let’s Be Still by The Head & the Heart

Fans of Fleet Foxes (or those looking for something a little more accessible), or Mumford and Sons will surely find plenty to enjoy in this second studio album from this Seattle-based indie rock group.  I can’t sell them as well as they can, so check out this video of their  performance of “Library Magic”, live on Brick Lane:

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury brings wonders alive, whether it’s the chills and insight of Farenheit 451 to his incredible short stories.   But through it all, for Bradbury, the most bewitching force in the universe is human nature. In these eighteen startling tales unfolding across a canvas of tattooed skin, living cities take their vengeance, technology awakens the most primal natural instincts, and dreams are carried aloft in junkyard rockets. Provocative and powerful, The Illustrated Man is a kaleidoscopic blending of magic, imagination, and truth—as exhilarating as interplanetary travel, as maddening as a walk in a million-year rain, and as comforting as simple, familiar rituals on the last night of the world.

From the West Branch:

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by Simon and Garfunkel

Quite simply, there is nothing that can, or ever will compare to Simon and Garfunkel.  As a young, angsty teenager who was saved by their music, I am wholeheartedly adding my voice to this particular recommendation.  This was the third album that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel put out, and it’s the first one that really got them major attention.  It’s been named on Rolling Stone’s 500 best albums of all time, and features some of the most iconic of their songs, including ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Homeward Bound’.

Towards a Better History…

Pardon me while I climb up on my soap box…

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

Okie dokie, now….Who watched the Bloomberg TV broadcast of the Boston Pops concert and fireworks last night?

Do you remember the montage of Boston that they’d played right at the beginning of the night?  Right after Brian Stokes Mitchell sang a stunning rendition of “American the Beautiful”, and added “sisterhood” after the line about “brotherhood”?

I know I did.  So did my cat.  And what we both noticed was that after a performance that honored not only the humanitarian goals of America (symbolized by “brotherhood”), but the determination and activism that is trying to bring us closer to that goal (symbolized by the “sisterhood”), as well as the recognition that America is made up of lots of different peoples…

…We get a montage about Boston that features images of men.

And I, along with my cat, who is himself a keen student of history, let out a huge sigh.  Not only because this kind of stuff happens all the time, because it does.  All the time.

You don’t have to take my word for it, either.  A Slate.com article last year pointed out that popular history books are not only largely about men, but are also largely written by men.  Click on the above link for more information, as well as a truly eye-opening graph about the state of the history publishing industry.   The problem with this isn’t the books themselves, or their authors (as long as they use good research practices and conscientious citations).  The problem is that these books, together, have the effect of a bullhorn–it makes it that much harder to hear any other stories being told around them.  And there are so many more stories that still need to be told.  Not only about Boston.

A painting recreating the Battle of Lexington and Concord

But Boston (and Massachusetts in general) is a phenomenal place to start telling those stories!  From the opening shots of the American Revolution fired in Concord and the riot that was the Boston Tea Party to the The Combahee River Collective in the 1970s to the being the first state to legalize gay marriage, Massachusetts has a history of producing and remembering people who change the status quo.  And to overlook that is to do a great disservice to its history, as well as upholding a troubling precedent of overlooking their contributions to history.

So let’s put together a list, shall we, of histories and people who weren’t discussed on Bloomberg TV last night, and celebrate all the people who make this area, this country, and this species we call humanity, so fascinating….

The Poems of Phyllis Wheatley:  The woman we know today as Phyllis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753, and was sold into slavery around the age of seven.   She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, and named after the ship that brought her to North America.  The Wheatley children taught her to read and write, and their parents, John and Susanna Wheatley encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.  Phyllis was emancipated in 1773, and became the first published female African-American poet the same year.  She corresponded with George Washington and the King George III, and wrote movingly about the rights of slaves in the emerging United States.  Phyllis Wheatley died at the age of 31, while working as a scullery maid in order to pay back her husbands’ debts.

Improper Bostonians : lesbian and gay history from the Puritans to Playland: Drawing on sources ranging from newspaper accounts to private archives, and incorporating more than 200 images, this book is one of, if not the most comprehensive LGBT city history around. Showcasing an extraordinary variety of perspectives and periods, subjects and sources, from Prohibition to World War II to  urban development to the AIDS epidemic, to tell a new and vitally important history of Boston.  The History Project is a volunteer-based organization that works to collect and preserve the history of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people in and of Massachusetts, and have a pretty remarkable digital archives on their website, which you can check out here.

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography: One of the faces that Bloomberg TV showed was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was, by far, the most well-known of the Transcendentalists living in Concord, Massachusetts in the 19th century.  But, nothing against Emerson at all, he was famous because he was the most mainstream of all the Transcendentalists.  He didn’t go build himself a cabin in the woods like his buddy, Henry David Thoreau.  He didn’t create a big scandal by implying that children had minds of their own and should be encouraged to think and contradict their elders, like Bronson Alcott.  And he wasn’t a rabble-rouser like Bronson’s daughter, my friend Louisa May Alcott.   Did you know that Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote?  The state legislature passed a bill in 1879 permitting women to vote in town elections dealing with children and education, and Louisa knew that this was the first, critical step, to women gaining a voice in politics.  You can read all about Louisa’s remarkable life, and her unique family, including her mother, who worked at a shelter for abused women in Boston in the mid-nineteenth century, in this phenomenal biography by Madeline Stern.

The Trouble Between Us : An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement: Inspired by the idealism of the civil rights movement, the women who launched the radical second wave of the feminist movement believed fundamentally in universal sisterhood and a color-blind democracy. Their goals, however, remain unrecognized to this day.  Winifred Breines explores why a racially integrated women’s liberation movement did not develop in the United States, using sources as diverse as protest posters, pamphlets, newspapers, speeches, and oral histories with some of the most influential and active of the second-wave feminists.  Of particular focus in her work is the Combahee River Collective, a Boston-based organization of Black women whose published statement (which you can read here) is considered a bedrock of the Black feminist movement to this day.  This isn’t an easy read, but it is a vitally important one for those seeking for ways to improve the dialogue still taking place about race and feminism today.

Interesting in reading some more of Boston’s–and Massachusetts’–fascinating, diverse, and revolutionary history?  Come into the Library and we’ll be happy to help you find just want you’re looking for!


The Romance Garden!

And so we come to the opening of a new month, dear readers, and a mid-week holiday!  Don’t forget, the Library will close at 5pm today (July 3), and will be closed for Independence Day!

A mid-week holiday is the perfect time to indulge in a good book, and today, our genre experts have a few new suggestions for you to keep your heart fluttering and your imagination fired up.  We hope you enjoy!


The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

When I teach history, one of the things I try really hard to impress on my students is that people haven’t changed all that much–what’s changed, is the way we tell stories, and who the heroes and heroines of those stories are.  Mackenzi Lee reinforces this lesson is a hug, bawdy, over-the-top novel that is full of the kind of characters who normally get overlooked in history books.

Henry “Monty” Montague may have attended the best boarding schools, and raised to be a proper English gentleman, but there is nothing in his world capable of taming him.  He’s flamboyant, reckless, and more than willing to dally with women and men alike.  But Monty knows his time is limited–after his Grand Tour, he’s supposed to be settling down to his familial obligations, which he is wholly unsuited to do.  He’s also harboring a crush on his best friend, Percy, who is traveling with him, which just makes everything more complicated. But Monty decides to make the best of what time he has and, with Percy and Monty’s sister by his side, sets out for the wildest Grand Tour that Europe has ever seen.

And what a ride it is!  The action in the middle part of this book get a wee bit absurd, but this book is so grand, and so enthusiastic, and so adventurous that any traditional trip around the continent would just seem silly.  Instead, we get pirates and manhunts, and derring-do a-plenty.  We also get a wealth of fascinating characters who embody a number of identities not typically seen in any book, let alone a historical.  But Lee’s historic notes at the back of the book justify her choices, and help us realize how vital it is to tell the stories she is.

And best of all, this is a smashing good romance that deals with self-acceptance and loyalty and passion, and is just the kind of book to sweep you off your feet–and off on the adventure of a lifetime!


A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J.Maas

With A Court of Mist and Fury, Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series leaps from a mediocre read to a strong and engaging romantic fantasy that will leave readers eagerly seeking out the next volume when they finish this one. This book picks up where the first left off, with Feyre engaged to Tamlin, High Lord of the Spring Court, but suffering from depression, due to events from the first book, which is exacerbated by the overly protective and controlling nature of her high fae fiance.

For the first part of the book, Feyre is forced to divide her time between two of the Fae courts of Prythian, Spring which she considers her home, and the Night Court, where she must visit one week each month after being forced into a bargain with the court’s high lord, Rhysand. While she reluctantly visits the Night Court, Rhysand gives Feyre opportunities to master her newfound fae powers, and she finds herself feeling less powerless and less accepting of the restrictive life Tamlin imposes on her. When those restrictions cause her to reach a breaking point, Rhysand arranges for her rescue, and brings her to stay at Night Court as long as she wishes. Throughout the story, war looms on the horizon, and Fayre may be the key to winning the battle for Prythian.

The romance that develops between Feyre and Rhysand is one of equals who empower each other. Despite their mating bond, a fae connection between two people that goes deeper than an ordinary marriage but can be rejected by either party, Rhysand always makes sure that Feyre knows that she has choices and is powerful in her own right. Despite their magical and physical power, Rhysand and Feyre are both vulnerable and in finding each other they find comfort for the lonely parts of themselves. In addition to intensely romantic, their courtship is fun- Rhysand’s flirtatious nature and Feyre’s foul mouth are pure gold in the world of romance banter. Pair all of that wonderful romance with some fantastic world building, and I can easily say this is the best romantic fantasy I have read since A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet.

A disclaimer for those who read the first book in the series and found themselves disappointed: Having read the first volume, A Court of Thorns and Roses,  and been completely disappointed by the last third of the book, which in my opinion felt like a Hunger Games rip-off, I was reluctant to continue the series. In the end, the good reviews and readily available status on Overdrive won out,  A Court of Mist and Fury went on vacation with me, and it turned out to be the kind of book that made me wish my plane ride was just a little bit longer.

Until next month, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

And many very happy Free-For-All birthday wishes to poet, prose writer, diplomat, and translator, Czesław Miłosz!

Courtesy of Culture.pl

Miłosz was born on this day in 1911 in Szetejnie, then part of the Russian Empire, now Lithuania.  A polymath from a young age, Miłosz became fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, and French.  His first volume of poetry was published in 1934, the same year he received his law degree from Stefan Batory University in Vilnius.  He spent most of the Second World War in Nazi-occupied Poland,and while he didn’t joint the resistance or take part in the Warsaw Uprising, he did join the Organizacja Socjalistyczno-Niepodległościowa “Wolność” (“The ‘Freedom’ Socialist Pro-Independence Organisation”), and was responsible for helping Jews escape Poland.  Though the exact number is unknown, we know that he personally saved the Tross and Wołkomińska families, actions which earned him the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem, Israel in 1989.  In later life, he also became a supporter to gay and lesbian rights, especially in Poland.

After the war, he served as cultural attaché of the newly formed Communist People’s Republic of Poland (you can see his passport on the left, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) , though he defected in 1951 and lived under political asylum in Paris until moving to the United States in 1960.  Because his works were banned by the Communist Party as a result of his defection, his work was almost never read in his home country.  It was only when Miłosz received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 that many Poles discovered his work.  After the Iron Curtain fell, he was able to return to Poland, at first to visit, later to live part-time in Kraków, where he passed away in 2004.

You can check out Miłosz‘s poetry via PoetryHunter.com, or come into the Library and check out some of his printed works.

And speaking of books you can check out, here are some of the new books that paraded onto our shelves this week, and are eager to be a part of your Independence Day festivities!

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria: In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets demanding freedom, democracy and human rights in the movement that became known as the Arab Spring. The government’s ferocious response, and the defiance of the demonstrators, spiraled into brutal civil war that has escalated to become the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.  However, in the midst of all the headlines, arguments, and racist dogma that has been unleashed by the war in Syria, the voices of individual Syrians has gone largely overlooked.  This book, based on interviews with hundreds of displaced Syrians conducted over four years across the Middle East and Europe, tells their stories.  Some are pages long, some read like a verse of poetry.  Together, though, they provide an unforgettable testament to human strength and endurance, as much as it is a counter-narrative to the prevailing tale of brutality, hatred, and disregard for that self-same humanity.  Larry Siems, author of The Torture Report, wrote a powerful review of this book, saying, in part, “To read these pages, to meet these men and women, is to cross a bridge ourselves, and to tremble: at the fragility of social order…but also at the love, anger, terror, trauma, compassion, endurance, awe, and determination a single human voice can convey.”

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: For the record, I am physically exhausted by books that define women by their relationship to men.  However, this book puts a feminist spin on some of the best of 19th-century’s weird and science fiction, so it definitely deserves another look.  Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a significant financial reward for information leading to his capture, but Mary’s search leads her instead to Hyde’s daughter, Diana.  With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, befriending more women created through experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.  When their quest brings them face to face with the power-crazed scientists who created them, the question becomes, who is the real monster of this story?  Theodora Goss’ debut novel is full of bravery, action, sisterhood, and a whip-smart intelligence that re-imagines all these classic 19th-century narratives of ‘progress’ that earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who called it “A tour de force of reclaiming the narrative, executed with impressive wit and insight.”

Grief Cottage: On the surface, Gail Godwin’s newest book is a ghost story.  But it’s also a very human story about loss, grief, guilt, and the power of art that transcends typical conceptions of genre.  After his mother’s death, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a small South Carolina island with his great aunt, a reclusive painter with a haunted past. Aunt Charlotte, otherwise a woman of few words, points out a ruined cottage, telling Marcus she had visited it regularly after she’d moved there thirty years ago because it matched the ruin of her own life, and inspired her to paint as a way of capturing their mutual desolation.  The islanders call the place “Grief Cottage,” because a boy and his parents disappeared from it during a hurricane fifty years before. Their bodies were never found and the cottage has stood empty ever since.  Marcus himself begins paying visits to the cottage, eventually meeting the young ghost who haunts it, and learning about the truth behind its possession of Grief Cottage.  Booklist gave this haunting tale a starred review, noting “Godwin’s riveting and wise story of the slow coalescence of trust and love between a stoic artist and a grieving boy . . . subtly and insightfully explores different forms of haunting and vulnerability, strength and survival”.

The Black Elfstone: The Fall of Shannara: Terry Brooks is arguably one of the best-known fantasy authors at work today, and with good reason.  His Shannara series has spanned 41 works (broken up into various sub-series), and this newest work launches the first in the series’ four-part epic conclusion.  Across the Four Lands, peace has reigned for generations. But now, in the far north, an unknown enemy is massing. More troubling than the carnage is the strange and wondrous power wielded by the attackers—a breed of magic unfamiliar even to the Druid order. Fearing the worst, the High Druid dispatches a diplomatic party under the protection of the order’s sworn guardian, Dar Leah, to confront the mysterious, encroaching force and discover its purpose.  Meanwhile, onetime High Druid Drisker Arc and his protege are beginning quests of their own, quests that will eventually drawn them together with Dar Leah in a tale that will have monumental consequences for the Four Lands.  Though new readers may have a little bit of difficulty getting into this series, overall, Brooks’ works aren’t impossible to pick up mid-series, and his skills in the fantasy genre shouldn’t be missed.  Patrick Rothfuss (one of my favorite fantasy authors) wrote a blurb for this book, saying “I can’t even begin to count how many of Terry Brooks’s books I’ve read (and reread) over the years. From Shannara to Landover, his work was a huge part of my childhood.”

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions: Our planet has witnessed five mass-extinction events in its history, and scientists today are seeing some pretty strong correlations between those events and our current climate changes.  In this terrifying, fascinating, and wide-ranging book, journalist Peter Brennan delves deep into earth’s past to discuss the five previous life-changing (literally) events, while presenting the stories from the scientists on the front lines of climate change research today, whose modern technology can reveal even more to us about the catastrophes of the past, how life on Earth manages to endure, and what all these stories can mean for us and our own future.  This is far more than “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it”.  Indeed, according to Library Journal, “If readers have time for only one book on the subject, this wonderfully written, well-balanced, and intricately researched (though not too dense) selection is the one to choose.”

Until next week, beloved patrons–Happy Reading!

Summer Staff Selections!

Now that summer is definitely, apparently (?) upon us, it’s time once again for the Free-For-All to share with you some of our lovely staff’s selections for summer reading!

We are a staff of diverse reading/listening/viewing habits, which makes these posts so much fun.  There is such a wide range of books and media that our staff enjoy that there is bound to be something in here to help make your summer that much more entertaining!  And so, without further ado, here is our third round of Staff Selections:

From the West Branch: 

Act One by Marion Hill:

Named by Rolling Stone as one of the “10 Artists You Need To Know”, steming from the wild success of their hit-single “Down” this Brooklyn-based duo have produced an album of bluesy, pop-y electronica-fusion songs. Very danceable, with a swanky energy.

From the Upstairs Offices:

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.  Profound, surprising, propulsive, and emotionally riveting, it stirs both the mind and the heart.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Millions of words have poured forth about man’s trip to the moon, but until now few people have had a sense of the most engrossing side of the adventure; namely, what went on in the minds of the astronauts themselves – in space, on the moon, and even during certain odysseys on earth…Wolfe’s got a big personality and it’s all over every page but I really enjoyed reading it nonetheless.  It doesn’t read like a lot of older nonfiction, which is fun.

From the Reference Desk:

Bellevue : Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

From its origins in 1738 as an almshouse and pesthouse, Bellevue today is a revered public hospital bringing first-class care to anyone in need.  It treated tens of thousands of Civil War soldiers, launched the first civilian ambulance corps and the first nursing school for women, pioneered medical photography and psychiatric treatment, and spurred New York City to establish the country’s first official Board of Health.  It took the AIDS crisis to cement Bellevue’s enduring place as New York’s ultimate safety net, the iconic hospital of last resort. Lively, page-turning, fascinating, Bellevue is essential American history.

Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty

Follows three mothers, each at a crossroads, and their potential involvement in a riot at a school trivia night that leaves one parent dead in what appears to be a tragic accident.  I was expecting some sort of catty mystery novel, but this book turned out to be really powerful, moving, insightful, engaging, and, above all, empowering, in ways I really was not expecting.  For those who have watched the HBO mini-series, or are planning to–read the book, too!

Happy Summer, Beloved Patrons!

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