True story: When I was four, my mother brought me to the children’s room of the Library and signed me up for my Library card. She told me to sign it using my best handwriting, because that’s what grown-up ladies got to do. Hence the stellar script in the picture above.
The Librarian behind the desk was very, very friendly, and talked to me about the books I had picked out, and how much I loved to read (and the fact that I refused to check out a book until I had read it cover to cover first). Before I left, she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
“I want to be the lady who works behind the desk at the Library!” I answered. My second choice was to be Maleficent, but I left that part out.
So today, I just want to thank the Peabody Library for making that long-ago four-year-old’s dreams come true. And my thanks too each and every one of you, for making each day so memorable.
(And thanks to my Mom, who told me I could have all the books I wanted from the Library, and didn’t mind when I read every single one of them before leaving.)
This week, The Guardian published an article reporting that the city of Moscow had finally (finally) approved a monument to one of it’s most under-appreciated, and controversial, authors: the great Mikhail Bulgakov.
Bulgakov was born on May 15, 1891 in Kiev (then part of the Russian Empire, now the capital of Ukraine), and originally trained to be a doctor, a job he performed well until he nearly died of typhus was working as an army doctor during the Russian Civil War.
Following Stalin’s rise to power, Bulgakov was living in Moscow, eking out a living as a playwright. Though he always favored science fiction, and tended toward the weird in his writing, he was also a ruthless satirist, which earned him a good deal of criticism, including from Stalin himself, who alternatively condemned Bulgakov’s work and praised it. Truthfully, this wasn’t an uncommon tactic–Stalin may have been brutal and ruthless, but he was also demoniacally clever, and delighted in keeping those under his thumb guessing, often for years on end.
Stalin’s intervention meant that nothing Bulgakov wrote would ever be published or performed for the rest of his life. Haunted and heartbroken, Bulgakov began writing the book that would make him immortal. Inspired by his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, he began penning The Master and Margarita, a book about the arrival of the Devil in Moscow.
It is physically impossible to sum up this book properly in this space, but, essentially, there are two plotlines–one is the story of the Master, a writer who, after composing a novel about the interrogation of Christ by Pontius Pilate, casts his book into the stove and is eventually incarcerated in a lunatic asylum. His beloved, Margarita, decides to risk everything–life, limb, and soul–in a conspiracy with the Devil and his enormous talking cat, Behemoth. The second plotline is that of the Master’s book, which features Christ and Pilate locked in an eternal struggle over truth.
Every scene in the book is a thinly veiled critique of Stalin’s purges, described in a way that brings out the real, personal, emotional agony of this time, and emphasizing the near inhuman courage it took simply to get up and live your life everyday. Indeed, the Devil (who, in this book, goes by the name of Woland) isn’t the villain of this piece. His justice is perverted to be sure, but even he bewildered by the petty, inane levels of evil that persists in Moscow everywhere he looks. Though his meddling brings total chaos to the city, it also brings retribution is some of the most satisfying, heart-rending, and blood-chilling scenes you’ll read.
Despite all this, Master and Margarita is a funny book…pitch-black funny, admittedly–and it’s one of the most uplifting, redemptive, hopeful books you will ever read. It is also mind-bendingly bizarre, with a number of scenes feeling like a hallucinatory fever-dream of color and shadow. I have read this book five times in English, and once in Russia, and I’ve cried every time. I’ve also laughed. And told random strangers on the Commuter Rail to read the book before they did anything else with their lives….
When Bulgakov read the manuscript to his closest friends, they knew that even hinting about it to anyone in authority would get him killed. As a result, he hid it in his desk, editing it whenever an idea struck, until his death in 1940 of hereditary kidney disease (by which time, he had been working on the book for twelve years). It would remain unpublished for over 25 years, and even then, Bulgakov’s wife (the model for Margarita) wasn’t sure which edits were the ones Bulgakov wanted. As a result, both editions were printed, leading to any number of complications between people who decide to read the book. It wasn’t until 1973 that the book appeared in Russia, and it was only added to school curriculums in the late 1990’s.
There have been attempts to get a monument to Bulgakov around Patriarch’s Pond (near his house, and also a crucially important setting for Master and Margarita) for years and years. But Nikolai Golubev, the artist commissioned to create the memorial wants to include characters from the book in his art. “Life is short, art is long, Golubev is quoted as saying, “Bulgakov didn’t have children, his children are his books. We want to put up a monument to these works, which will outlast me and you.”
….And no one wants to put a statue of the Devil in Moscow.
Nor do they want a state of the primus stove, into which the Master threw his manuscript in a fit of despair. In an open letter to the author, this element was called “a symbol of devildom”…but the truth is, that is perhaps the most hopeful aspect of Bulgakov’s book. Because, as Woland reminds us “manuscripts don’t burn”. No matter how hard we humans try to quash each other’s voices, no matter how brutal is the world in which we live, Bulgakov’s book is a reminder that ideas live a life of their own, and that they endure long after we are dust…or statues. And even if, for now, Bulgakov’s memorial is only a likeness of the man himself, seated on a broken bench, it is a start. “Everything passes away,” Bulgakov wrote early in his career, “suffering,pain, blood, hunger,pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the Earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars? Why?”
Good friends…they aren’t easy to find in this world. But good friends are often the ones who show you the sides of yourself that you didn’t know were there, and introduce you to books you might never have read.
Take, for example, an exchange between myself, and our fabulous Saturday Blogger, who goes by the name of Lady Pole. Unsurprisingly, books are involved in a fair bit of our conversations (and, one book in particular, if you haven’t noticed…). But after our discussions about genre fiction a few weeks back, Lady Pole, in all her splendidness, went and created a Pinterest board titled “Fantastic Fantasy“, showcasing the fantasy novels we’ve discussed here at the Free For All.*
When she first told me about this board, I was delighted, but also surprised. Because if you had asked me five minutes beforehand, I would have told you that I wasn’t a big reader of fantasy books at all.
But the longer I looked through the books on our list, the more I began to appreciate just how diverse the fantasy genre really and truly is. Up until Lady Pole’s intervention, I would have told you that fantasy novels were ones with dragons in them. Possibly warlocks. And unicorns. But that was about it.
In the interest of full disclosure, it appears that my definition was limited by the fact that I believe that magic, ghosts, fairies, leprechauns, necromancers, and pyromancy are all completely real–and there’s nothing wrong with this. But it did impede me from seeing all these great elements as part of an enormous and hugely varied genre that incorporates more than I had personally ever imagined. (Just a note: these things are real. Never let a leprechaun hear you say that you think they aren’t real).
So, with that in mind, I thought I’d offer us both a little primer of some of the “subgenres” of fantasy so that you and I could both become a little more familiar with all that fantasy has to offer, and really come to appreciate a genre that re-invents fiction on a daily basis. (We’re going in alphabetical order here, so as to be fair to all the dragons and leprechauns and unicorns)
Dark Fantasy: This subgenre walks a fine line between fantasy and horror, incorporating elements of both to make for a story that is intentionally frightening, unsettling, and generally creepy. Charles L. Grant, a pioneer of the dark fantasy genre, defined it as “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding”, though it has also come to be associated with stories from “The Monsters’ Point of View”. Think H.P. Lovecraft, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and China Mieville’s Kraken.
High Fantasy: Here’s where the dragons and warlocks generally show up. High fantasy books are generally set in a completely different world from our own; worlds with their own rules and population, that generally tend to be pretty epic in their scope (Tolkien invented a language for his characters). These are the kind of books that tend to get the “Fantasy” stickers with the glowing unicorn on their spines. Think J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.
Historical Fantasy: Now this is a subgenre with subgenres, making it a bit of a tricky category to cover quickly. Very broadly speaking, these books tend to take place in a past full of magical/fantastical/paranormal elements. Sometime that can be a familiar past, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, or an alternative past, like Keith Roberts’ Pavane, which is set in a world where the Spanish Armada defeated the Elizabeth I. They can also deal with fairytales and folklore, as in Bill Willingham’s Peter and Max. Steampunk, which usually imagines a Victorian world where steam, rather than electricity, became the dominant source of power, also falls generally within this genre. Check out: Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat, Neil Gaimain’s Stardust, or V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic.
Urban Fantasy: Fantasy set in a city. Obviously. To be more specific, though, these books tend to resemble in many ways the noir detective stories of the mid-20th century: they frequently feature detectives, private eyes, or guns-for-hire who deal in the paranormal, and they often deal with the grittier side of life, and life in the city. Case in point: Mike Carey’s near-perfect Felix Castor series, P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files, as well as Joseph Nasisse’s Eyes to See. Interestingly, urban fantasy is increasingly becoming a genre of heroines. Sometimes they find a hero along the way, and sometimes they don’t, but this subgenre is fast carving out a space for female heroines–and authors–to break all the rules, with some fantastic results. For examples, look for Adrian Phoenix’s Makers Song series, Kat Richardson’s Greywalker novels, and Chloe Neill’s super-terrific Chicagoland Vampire series.
It’s also really important to remember that these classifications are by no means hard and fast. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones is as much high fantasy as it is historical fantasy. Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are urban fantasy, but they can be shelved in mystery, as well. A vast number of steampunk books are shelved as romances, rather than fantasy at all. My hope here is to help you and me to realize that genres can be as vast and unpredictable and wonderful as the people who read them–and the friends who recommend more!
*This is also a great time to remind you to check out all our nifty Pinterest boards! You can click the link at the top of this page, or go right here!
As many of you lovely patrons know, I am a student of the First World War. Now, this is not a topic that is generally applicable to everyday life…unless you use a spork on a daily basis. Because they were first conceived of and developed by the American Army in 1917. The more you know.
What, you might ask, are bibliotherapists? They are, essentially, practitioners in the art of healing people through books. Bibliotherapy can take many forms. Some Churches hold reading circles; prisons offer classes in literature for inmates; nursing homes have book clubs for patients suffering from dementia. But at the heart of all these groups is essentially the same: to “put new life into us”.
Bibliotherapy has existed, in some form, since the time of the Ancient Greeks, who inscribed over the doors of the library at Thebes that this was a “‘healing place for the soul”. Freud used literature with his psychotherapy patients (though, admittedly, he was just as concerned with Hamlet’s psychological make-up as he was with his patients…). But bibliotherapy actually came into its own, and got its name, during the First World War.
Many military hospitals, particularly those in the US, were equipped with libraries, and doctors actually prescribed reading to their injured soldier-patients as part of their treatment. This practice was particularly used for shell-shocked patients (men who suffered from the condition we now call PTSD), whose minds were trapped by their memories. But there are records of doctors prescribing reading course of treatment for civilians, as well. The New Yorker describes a “literary clinic” that was run in 1916 out of a Church by a man named Bagster. I was particularly drawn to the description of a man who had “taken an overdose of war literature,” and required bibliotherapy to calm him down.
There is no cold hard science behind bibliotherapy, but each practitioner offers a similar ideology. According to the good Mr. Bagster, “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is.” According to Régine Detambel, an award-winning author who consciously writes pieces to be used in bibliotherapy, “We are all beings of language…There’s a certain rapport between the text and the body that must be considered” she explained, “Books are caresses, in the strongest sense of the term!”
Shirley Jackson wrote in The Haunting of Hill House, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” And I think, at its heart, that bibliotherapy seeks to offer an antidote to that reality. For the men like those Bagster mentioned, who had read too much war literature–literature that describes in graphic detail the very real chaos, fear, and anger of the First World War–there was Jane Austen, whose work is not only light and fun, but marked by manners, rules, and justice.
Bibliotherapy also counters reality by offering empathy. Berthoud mentions a patient of who was struggling with being the single father of a baby. For him, there was To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel that features another single father, who has to navigate some of the most challenging issues a parent can face. George Eliot is said to have overcome her grief over her husband’s death by reading fiction with a young friend of hers…who later became her second husband.
Ultimately, bibliotherapy emphasizes one of the most basic purposes of fiction–to remind us that we are not alone, even when the world seems big and scary and overwhelming. To give us the chance to connect, not only with characters who can help us grow, or help us calm down, or help us learn, but to connect, as well, with other readers. I owe some of my favorite relationships in this world to books (many thanks, Jonathan Strange), and some of my favorite memories to the stories we shared.
So please know that, no matter how big the world may seem, and how sadder, the library is here to help. We can’t make it better out there, but we can offer a bit of an escape from the reality outside. We may not have answers, but we have shelves and shelves of books, filled with countless characters, who are all quite eager to let you know that you are not alone. We may not have answers, but we have books. And sometimes, that is enough.
The world we live in is confusing. At times it’s a beautiful, wondrous place filled with amazing books and infinite possibilities and other times…. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m enchanted by Paris. Certainly a part of that is dictated by the romance and myth that surrounds the city. Another part is because I’m an architecture, museum and art geek who loves to see what cities have to offer in that regard and Paris is like hitting the mother lode.
When I visited Paris a few years ago, I noticed there was something else that made Paris an amazing place: the people. My visit was punctuated by friendly, helpful and endearing individuals: the businessmen who helped and cheered me on as I figured out the door on the subway car (they don’t open automatically); the hotel concierge who never stopped giving me a warm, welcoming smile; the waitress who patiently taught me how to pronounce “chestnut” and a few other food words in French; the Disneyland Paris (don’t judge me) cast member who brightly exclaimed “Le magique du Disney!” as she retrieved something for me; the Eiffel Tower worker who gave me a wink and a salute as I tried to distance myself from a rowdy tourist group; the weary commuter who exchanged a compassionate glance with me while we were stuck on the Metro. None of them had to be even remotely as kind to me as they were, but they were and they showed me that they were denizens of a city housing compassionate individuals.
I’m not even remotely qualified to speak about the events that happened in Paris last weekend, or in other parts of the world over the past couple of weeks. Others who are arguably more qualified than I am have already written some impassioned pieces like this one and this one. There are hundreds more. The one that resonates with me the most is the Dalai Lama’s response as he insists that “we are one people,” but others may find resonance elsewhere.
My only hope is that the beleaguered commuters, the cheerful businessmen, friendly tourist-trap workers and everyone else in Paris be they natives, tourists or immigrants, finds their own peaceful way to navigate the “after.” My limited experience has shown me that Paris’s true strength is in its people, so here are a few selections that highlight that strength:
I started this book shortly before the events in Paris occurred. I wasn’t 100% sure I would be able to finish it and did take a break from it for a couple of days. Reading about the daily lives of the Montmartre neighborhood residents, whose lives, like those in every other neighborhood in Paris, have undoubtedly changed. But Sciolino drew me back in as she writes lovingly of the neighborhood, of its people, of its shops and traditions. She writes of the way life there is changing and of the anachronisms that remain. This book is more than a lively slice of life; it’s a love letter to the people of that neighborhood who have accepted Sciolino (an outsider) and embraced her into their way of life. I did finish this book and because the strength of the individuals and of the community as a whole was palpable, I was left with a resonating hope for Paris itself.
Longtime friends and native Parisians offer a modern, more authentic take on the Parisan style trends that float into the US. Using themselves as models, they show the reader how life, love, style and history are viewed by Parisians and they do so with wit, class, and a certain amount of self-deprecation that keeps this book down-to-earth, rather than becoming a lofty, wistful “maybe someday’ guide. Poignantly, they note that “The most famous Parisiennes are foreigners,” acknowledging “Yes, the Parisienne often comes from somewhere else. She wasn’t born in Paris, but she’s reborn there.” These four authors will help everyone who reads their book take a little bit of Paris with them everywhere.
It’s usually a safe bet that a study by Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough will be a worthwhile read. This work examines how Paris has left such an indelible mark on America and Americans, having opened her city streets to the literary, cultural, intellectual and scientific expats who brought the American pioneering spirit across the Atlantic and brought back a sense of culture and finesse. Elizabeth Blackwell, James Fenimore Cooper, George P. A. Healy, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain and more sought refuge, knowledge, anonymity or camaraderie in the City of Light. McCullough demonstrates here how Paris has long been a place that opens its borders and is willing to share its treasures (both physical and intellectual) with the world.
There are many books that capture Paris in the 1920s when Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company was helping struggling artists and to attend a literary salon at Gertrude Stein’s 27 rue de Fleurus was the ambition of many young writers. But Hemingway’s account is deeply personal and has shaped the way many view Paris with his immortal, titular quote: “If you are luck enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Hemingway can be petty and not everyone is fond of his sparse prose, but his impressions, particularly of the people are still memorable. Paris has begun purchasing the book en masse as an act of solidarity; according to the International Business Times, it’s temporarily sold out. In September, Booklist revisited the book noting that: “Indeed, Hemingway could be annoying, but he could also be poetic; such an articulate paean to Paris and the influential people he met there qualified A Moveable Feast as being worthy of rereading.”
The pseudonymous author of wildly popular and immensely clever Regency romance novels and a Shakespeare professor at Fordham University, decided to take a sabbatical and move her family to Paris. Highly recommended by fellow library blogger (also referred to pseudonymously as Arabella), this is another love letter to daily Parisian life as James discovers hidden museums, Parisian style triumphs and the joys of walking in the city. This book illuminates family life in Paris, highlighting the quirky and joyful moments of her time there.
There are so many more wonderful, loving memoirs, histories and stories about the strength of Paris and its people. I encourage you to seek them out or stop by the Library for recommendations. I will continue to read stories like this about Paris because they give me ample reason for hope. I hope to return to Paris sooner rather than later. I hope that the “after” Paris becomes stronger and more unified than the “before.” I hope that worldwide, we work at being more peaceful and compassionate. I hope that all of you, dear readers, stay safe and remain hopeful yourselves.
I think the above cartoon perfectly sums up my experience of reading (though there are generally more Cthulus in my reading experience, but anyways…). And for those of you whose heart and brain would like a bit of adventure this weekend, here are five of our newest arrivals to get you started!
The Master of the Prado: Any fans of the film Russian Arkare bound to enjoy this novelized-biography of Spain’s famous Prado Museum. Art historian and author Javier Sierra’s tale begins when he encounters a mysterious stranger in the museum who promises to reveal to him all the magnificent secrets of the galleries, the artists, and the paintings. At once an art history lesson, a charming sort of fairy tale of exploration, and a perfect guide for you arm chair tourists, this is the perfect book for a little weekend esacpe-y reading…
The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories: My utter obsession with Sherlock Holmes aside, where else are you going to find stories by Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and P.G. Wodehouse in one place anywhere else? By far, one of the highlights of this collection (in my humble opinion) is James M. Barrie’s seldom-discussed “The Adventure of the Two Collaborators”, which Barrie sent as a joke to his buddy Conan Doyle, after a play they had written together turned into the biggest flop of the year on the London stage. In it, Doyle and Barrie confront the spectre of Holmes in a battle of wits that any Holmes aficionado is bound to appreciate.
Prince of Darkness: Despite its somewhat histrionic title, Shane White’s new biography brings a fascinating, and woefully overlooked story to light in this biography of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, purportedly the wealthiest man of color in the United States during the nineteenth century. Despite his obscure beginnings, possibly as a slave, Hamilton spent his life outsmarting a system that was designed to keep him invisible. He bought shares in railroads which he wasn’t allowed to ride, he attended social functions with people who had never spoken to a non-white person, and, at the height of his wealth, was worth the equivalent of $50 million in today’s currency. White also tackles the way that history has portrayed Hamilton and his race, offering a fascinating commentary on he ways in which we as a society judge–and color–success.
Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind: George Makari takes us back to the Enlightenment, just as the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam (hardy har), and as debates over the human mind were flourishing. The Enlightenment spoke of souls, of an inner spirit that moved people to do, and to think. But as machines began to change the world at a rapid pace, more people began thinking of the mind like a machine unto itself, with the ability to compute and rationalize and problem-solve. What, then, made up the mind? Makari’s study is ostensibly about ideas, but he carefully draws connections between those ideas and resultant changes in art, government, and society, that offers insight into the world that our minds have shaped.
Dark Corners: Ruth Rendell is a establishment in the world of English mysteries, and her prodigious imagination shows no signs of slowing down at all. In this weird tale of psychological suspense, Carl Martin inherits a house in an increasingly wealthy and hip London neighborhood, which he rents in a desperate attempt to raise some capital. But when his tenant implicates Carl in a suspicious death, and begins to blackmail him in ever-more creative and disturbing ways, the stage is set for a few shocking twists, and unforeseen betrayals that is sure to get under your skin. Stephen King has said that “No one surpasses Ruth Rendell when it comes to stories of obsession, instability, and malignant coincidence.” And, as we all know, if it’s good enough for Stephen King, it’s certainly good enough for me.
Enjoy, beloved patrons! And have a safe, happy weekend!
We’ve talked about about the National Book Awards here at the Free For All, and today, we are overjoyed to bring you the winners, (almost) live from the Cipriani in Manhattan….
(drum roll, please?)…..
Congratulations to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Adam Johnson, Robin Coste Lewis, and Neal Shusterman!!
Ta-Nehisi Coates has been having quite a banner year, strining together accolades and praise for his memoir Between the World and Me, including receiving a MacArthur ‘genius’ in September, which is awarded for “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work”. His book is dedicated to his friend, Prince Jones, who was killed by a police officer in 2000, and whose death sits at the heart of this work of being black in America, and carrying the weight of history on one’s shoulders every single day.
Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, which won the award for fiction, is another success from a writer who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Sonin 2012. As Publisher’s Weekly puts it, ““How do you follow a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel? For [Adam] Johnson, the answer is a story collection, and the tales are hefty and memorable. . . . Often funny, even when they’re wrenchingly sad, the stories provide one of the truest satisfactions of reading: the opportunity to sink into worlds we otherwise would know little or nothing about.” Interestingly, his book was actually not among the favorites to win the prize (that distinction apparently went to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies).
Robin Coste Lewis took the award for poetry for her debut collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, which, sadly, NOBLE doesn’t have (yet!), but which deals with the perception of the black female figure in art, and in the world. In one poem, titled “Venus of Compton”, Lewis presents the title of works depicting black women through forty thousand years of human history in a manner that The New Yorkercalled “magical…All those women made into serviceable, mute paddles and spoons, missing their limbs and heads, are, by the miracle of verbal art, restored.” Just as memorable: Lewis dedicated the poem to “the legacy of black librarianship, and black librarians, worldwide” for opening up the world to her, once upon a time.
Last, but by no mean least, we have Neal Shusterman, whose novel Challenger Deep won the American Book Award for ‘young people’s literature’. His work focuses on a teen who is dealing with the onset of schizophrenia, and trying desperately to balance the worlds inside and outside his head. Booklist gave it a starred review, saying it is “Haunting, unforgettable, and life-affirming all at once”. What makes this particular book remarkable, though, is what a personal piece it is–Shusterman based his hero, Caleb, on his son, Brendan, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 16. Brendan illustrated this book, as well, making this book a beautiful and truly meaningful piece of collaboration.
Congratulations to all these marvelous National Book Award winners, and thank you for sharing your brilliance with us!
"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass