Thinking about heroines…


Our sensational posts from the South and West Branches this week  got me thinking about books (ok, let’s be frank…almost everything get me thinking about books).  I thought about previous posts on women whose literary contributions are continually under-valued by the publishing world, and women like Jeannette Rankin, who had to struggle all their lives to be the heroine of their own story.  I was fortunate enough to learn about her in grade-school, and she had an indescribable impact on me.

And that got me thinking about the characters that we meet in growing up.  How many books describe people becoming the heroes of their own story, and changing their world because of their actions?  Any number of them…in fact, in a way, every book is a kind of coming of age tale…But how many of those books feature a woman, not just as a main character, but as the heroine?  I don’t know about you, but it took me a moment to come up with some that weren’t genre-specific romance novels, or stories that forced women to survive impossible odds, like The Hunger Games…a sensational book, no doubt, but there is a difference between acting and reacting, about choosing and being chosen that I think is very important.

Perhaps is isn’t a big deal.  If a book is well-written and the characters vivid enough, there is no reason that I, as a female, can’t relate to a male characters.  I was entranced by,  and cheered for Harry Potter as much as I did for Katniss Everdeen.  Characters are usually human, just as I am human, and therefore, our emotions are, on some level, equitable, and our struggles share many common elements.

But there are things to consider here; because the truth is that it’s comparatively easy to be a hero.  Privilege is a powerful thing, that often gets overlooked in many coming-of-age tales.  Harry Potter isn’t judged for his looks, or ostracized for his intelligence in the same way Hermione is.  He doesn’t have to prove himself and justify his existence day after day after day in the same way she does.  Harry has challenges, certainly, but he is also given room to discover who he is and what he can do in a way that Hermione doesn’t.  Also…what was the big controversy over Hermione’s character after the series’ finale?  It was whom she (should have) married in the end.  Ahem.  I can think of plenty of other examples, but for now, in honor of a week of celebrating women being excellent, I thought I’d add a few books featuring heroines who are excellent, starting with some of the younger ones.  So, without further ado…

IF you’d like some more heroines in your life, Then check out…

1484097Matilda: This book was my salvation as a seven-year-old who was in the process of outgrowing fairy stories and felt utterly out-of-place in reality.  And into the breach swooped Roald Dahl, and his wondrously wise, bookish, and charmingly out-of-place heroine. Stifled by parents who can’t appreciate her, and forced to attend a school with a head-mistress who is just this side of Satanic, Matilda uses all the untapped power in her brain to make the impossible happen, and to defend those around her who need her strength and courage.  And though Matilda finds a forever-friend in her beloved teacher, Miss Honey, she doesn’t need anyone else in her life to make her the powerhouse character she is.  I don’t care if this is marketed as a kid’s book…Dahl has the uncanny, and occasionally terrifying power to tell a story about a child in a way that will speak to all ages.  And if you like this book, check out the musical as well.  It’s one of the few musical adaptations I can say hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head.

1483377Catherine Called BirdyKaren Cushman is just generally a sensation writer, but this book, especially, is something to remember.  Catherine, called Little Bird, or Birdy, is the thirteen-year-old daughter of English country knight, whose keeps a daily diary.  Cushman does a marvelous job weaving all the unchanging aspects of being a teenager–the agonizing process of trying to grow up, the need for approval and the desire to be different, the highs and lows of falling in love–with enough historic detail to ground this book very firmly in its medieval setting.  Because this book is Birdy’s diary, her voice comes through every page, strong and clear, and despite the fact that her marriage and her fate is never, and may never be in her own hands, given her time and circumstances, there is no way this witty, sarcastic, and wholly original young woman will not be the one to tell her tale.

2095295Alanna: The First Tale: Pierce was one of the first women to write fantasy novels about young women for young women that encouraged them to be precisely who and what they wanted.  She never shies away from what it might cost these heroines in the process, but also ensures that the rewards for their courage and self-reliance can be truly great.  This is the first book in her series about Alanna, the younger of two twins, who decides to become a knight so that her brother can go study magic.  Becoming a knight means far more than sword fights, and armor, however, and Alanna herself turns out to be far more than a fighter–so much so that her story inspired a series, and a number of spin-off stories set in the same world.

I hope these stories inspire you to go out and be remarkable today!  Happy Reading!

Wednesdays @ West: Votes for Women

Image from Encyclopedia Virginia, a project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Next Wednesday, August  26th marks the 95th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in the United States.  If that isn’t worth celebrating, dear readers, I don’t know what is.  To join the fun, here are a few suggestions.

1.  Host a Suffragist Memorial Party.  If, by chance, you end up dressing up as a suffragist for the occasion, please share your photos with your favorite librarians.

2.  Watch a documentary.  Try One woman, One Vote, narrated by Susan Sarandon that covers the full 70 year battle for the enfranchisement of women.

ironjawedangels3. Check out Hollywood’s take on the final days of the fight for suffrage.  Iron Jawed Angels with Hilary Swank, Frances O’Connor, Julia Ormond, Anjelica Huston and others is a well done dramatization that will stick with you well past your first viewing.

4.  Read some history.  Far from being dull, the stories of the suffrage movement are often intriguing, surprising and sometimes scandalous.  Try one or more of these historical accounts:

sistersSisters: the lives of America’s suffragists by Jean H. Baker.  Discover the personal lives and political struggles of the heroines of the suffrage battle: Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Francis Willard and Alice Paul.

scarletsistersThe Scarlet Sisters: sex, suffrage and scandal in the Gilded Agby Myra MacPherson.  Victoria Woodhull, spiritualist, owner of a women’s brokerage house and the first woman to run for president in the United States, had none of the respectability that other suffragists tried so hard to cultivate.  But her story makes for highly entertaining reading!

Speaking of interesting and controversial women, Peabody’s Mary Upton Ferrin was quite scandalous in her day.  Luckily for us, local historian, S.M. Smoller has recorded her story.

jeannetterankinAnd no consideration of the women who won us the right to vote would be complete without mention of the first woman elected to Congress.  Jeannette Rankin: a political woman by James J. Lopach chronicles Rankin’s election to office (years before women could vote nationally), her social activism and her staunch pacifism through both world wars.

5.  Give your suffrage celebration a fictional flare, with one of these novels:

inagildedcageIn a Gilded Cage by Rhys Bowen.  Female detective Molly Murphy finds herself solving yet another mystery after she and some fellow Vassar alums are arrested for participating in a suffrage parade.


fallofgiantsFall of Giants by Ken Follett.  If you need another reason to try Follett’s epic and much-loved Century trilogy here’s one: it is, among many other things a tale of the suffragist movement.


harrietandisabellaHarriet and Isabella by Patricia O’Brien.  The members of the real-life Beecher family were quite well known in their time.  Brother Henry Ward was a famous (eventually disgraced) preacher.  Equally well known were his sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and the suffragist, Isabella Beecher Hooker.  This fictionalized account of their family, looks at Henry’s fall from grace and his sisters very different reactions to it.

6.  For bonus points, share some suffrage history with the children andwithcourageandcloth teens in your lives.  The youngest in the family will appreciate Marching with Aunt Susan by Claire Rudolf Murphy, while older elementary school aged children can enjoy A Time for Courage: the suffragette diary of Kathleen Brown by Kathryn Lasky.  For marchingwithauntsusanthe middle or high school set, try With Courage and Cloth: winning the fight for women’s right to vote by Ann Bausum.


Postcards from London: The Best Day Ever.

This week’s postcard comes to you from the British Museum, home of the score of Handel’s Messiah and the world’s oldest known chess set and the ever-contentious Elgin Marbles.  But I wasn’t there to see any of these wonderful displays.  I was there because I was in exactly the right place at precisely the right time in order to catch a once-in-a-lifetime event.


You see, the Almeida Theatre in Islington (North-central London for those of you who like to know these things) has declared this summer The Greek Season, and is staging all new productions of ancient Greek classics, from Medea to Orestes, and making headline all the while.  For those of you interested in learning more, click here.  And because the Almeida believes not only in launching new performers’ careers, but in touching as many people as possible with what they do, they arranged to have a public reading of Homer’s The Iliad.  In the main entrance hall of the British Museum.  With over 60 actors and actresses taking part.  

Now, I had read The Odyssey in high school, and I remembered being quite pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story, how engaged I was in the drama and characters, and how accessible the story remained, even after some 2,700 years.  I went to the Museum, knitting project in hand, expecting a fun performance, but nothing could have prepared me for this performance of The Iliad.

The Trojan War kicked off at 9am, with fearless Hector and passionate Achilles battling for honor and glory, all watched by the ever-present and ever-meddlesome gods of Olympus.  Those of us sitting on the benches in the atrium of the museum heard performances from the likes of Rory Kinnear (see my lousy photo below), Sinéad Cusack and Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss, as well as Outlander‘s Tobias Menzies, whose performance of Hector’s death was utterly spellbinding, and, be still my heart, Bertie Carvel, of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell fame.  But while the chance to hear performances from such acclaimed actors was thrilling, what happened that day was far bigger than any one person.

Rory Kennear
Rory Kinnear at the British Museum

According to news reports, there were several hundred people listening to The Iliad at any given point during the day at the Museum.  And thousands of others streamed it online, thanks to the Almeida’s 16-hour internet broadcast.  And enough people tweeted about the event to make #iliad one of the top ten trending hashtags in the world.  For any book to make such an impact is impressive, but it speaks even more highly of The Iliad–and Robert Fagles’ phenomenally accessible and sympathetic translation–to realize that the work getting all this attention was nearly 3,000 years old.

All the works attributed to the person (or people) known as Homer were meant to be read out loud, a fact immediately apparent to those of us listening.  There is something truly magical about having a story read to you, and the act of sharing tales is a fundamental and moving human interaction that shouldn’t be limited to our childhoods.  No one in that Museum was too sophisticated or too old to be drawn into this timeless epic, or the energy of those who brought it to life.  Some people brought battered paperback copies of The Iliad with them in order to follow along.   Others spread out their coats and had a make-shift picnic in the lobby of the museum.  I found a few other knitters there, and we formed what one production assistant named “Madame LaFarge’s corner”.  Others simply heard the cadence of a story unfolding and stopped….and stayed to cheer the passionate speeches from Agamemnon, or revel in the gory details of ancient battles.  When Hector killed Petroclus, one little boy who had been sitting near the podium audibly gasped.

Susannah Findlay reads about the first night of the battle.

Now, at over 2,700 lines, The Iliad remains one of the longest poems ever written, and even starting at 9:00am and going non-stop, with actor’s reading for some 15-25 minutes a piece, by the time the British Museum was about to close, we had only made it through about 2/3 of the book.  So The Iliad moved to the Almeida for a nighttime marathon…and Marco Brondon reading his passage out loud on the bus in order to ensure the marathon would not stop.

Marco Brondon reads on the 19 bus.
Marco Brondon reads on the 19 bus.

At 8pm precisely, once everyone had made the pilgrimage from the Museum to the Almeida, The Iliad began again, with the battle over Patroclus’ body raging, and Achilles’ growing fury turning into a killing rage.  Each performer dropped their script into a huge clear box when they were finished, allowing the audience to realize how much we had collectively accomplished.  The candles on the stage burned lower as the tale progressed, creating longer and longer shadows along the brick walls.  People read along, stretched out in the seats, leant forward in rapt attention, and applauded as each storyteller dropped their part into the box and made way for the next section of text.  Five hours later, at 1:01am, we collectively buried Hector, the Breaker of Horses, and called an end to one of the most remarkable days I can remember.

The End.

I don’t know how to describe this whole event to you adequately–the energy and excitement that swirled over a book that had been read out loud, the pure joy that the performers and audience took in each section of text, even after 16 hours.   And when the final line was read, everyone stood and cheered, knowing they had been a part of something unforgettable.

There is talk of making this 16-hour performance into a broadcast or podcast, and if I can get any news on that, I’ll be sure to pass it on.  For now, here are some clips from the evening at the Almeida for you to savor: Clip 1 & Clip 2.  I so wish you had been there, but I hope this makes you feel like you were.

More Books On the Screen…

In the past, I have been skeptical of page-to-screen discussed previously, it’s always difficult to balance expectations with reality, or to find the book that you read in the show or film that a production company put on the screen.  But, as was proven with the super-terrific Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrellgood adaptations do exist, and they can captivate book-lovers and film-buff equally, together, and individually (and yes, we admit we have an addiction to this book, but if loving it is wrong, we don’t want to be right).  Not only that, but the incredible advances in technology means that a great many tv shows have the production values, casts, and special effects of many films, meaning that you can enjoy your favorite shows at home.  In your pajamas (hooray!).

Not only that, but productions are also acknowledging the enormous obligation they have to the reading public.  Perhaps the adaptation of the Harry Potter novels were a turning point; with such an enormous fan base demanding to see their favorite books on the screen, Hollywoodland realized the power that readers can wield, both imaginatively and financially.  Today, many authors are consulted on the scripts of their shows/films–and some even help with the writing (Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, particularly, seem terribly fond of adapting their own work for the screen).  The results are often quite delightful.  Susanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange and mr. Norrell wrote a wonderful article about watching her characters come to life, saying that “nothing, I find, has prepared me for the sight of my own characters walking about. A playwright or screenwriter must expect it; a novelist doesn’t and naturally concludes that she has gone mad.”

But her madness translated into viewers’ delight, and offered hope for readers that the future of literary adaptations is a bright one.  So for today’s post, I thought it might be fun to take a look at some more literary adaptations that have made it to the big screen–and are bound soon for the small screen.

imagesPaper Towns: Fans of John Green (and really, everyone should be a fan of John Green, if not for his books than for his super-fun and highly educational YouTube channel) will delight in this second adaptation of his work.  Paper Towns tells the tale of Quentin “Q” Jacobsen, a high school senior who revels in the mundaneness of his life…until he meets Margo Roth Spiegleman, a fellow classmate, who is shrouded in an air of mystery.  But after Margo and Quentin sneak out for a bizarre midnight adventure, she disappears, leaving Quentin to piece together the clues and discover where she went.  Green, as ever, defies convention in this book, challenging the “cool, mysterious, manic-pixie-girl” stereotype in a really interesting manner.

MV5BMTUwODU3NjQxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODE2NTE4NTE@._V1_SX214_AL_The End of the Tour: This sleeper indie hit seems to be hitting all the right notes with film-fans and bibliophiles alike.  Based on David Lipsky’s memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, this film tells the story of the five days Lipsky spent with Wallace on his book tour, following the publication of Wallace’s Infinite Jest in 1996.  Lipsky recorded nearly all of those five days, providing an enormous treasure trove of material from which to develop his book–and from which the screenwriters developed this film.  Reviewers have called the material “a biography in five days”, and they provide a fascinating insight into one of the most original minds of his generation.  The film benefits from sensationally sympathetic performances by Jessie Eisenberg and Jason Segel as Wallace.

1997610American GodsJust remember–you heard this here first.  Apparently, Neil Gaiman’s sensational, haunting, fiendishly clever book is being adapted for television, with Gaiman himself writing the script for the pilot.  Shadow has just been released from prison with nothing–the death of his wife and best friend in a car crash has left him with no ties left on earth. He becomes a bodyguard to the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who seems to know far more about Shadow than anyone should…and gradually realizes that Mr. Wednesday is not the man he seems.  It turns out that Wednesday is an ancient god who is determined to gather the manifestations of the old gods of Americas whose followers have passed away.  This is one of those shows that will either by sensational or god-awful (pun intended), but with Neil Gaiman contributing to it, I can only surmise that this is a series that cries out to be binge-watched.

The debate over books-to-the-screen is always a difficult one, and issues of adaptation can prove more hazardous than international treaties, especially for devoted fans like you and I, but I think it’s safe to say that things are looking up in the world of adaptations–what say you, beloved patrons?


PS: Check it out!  The library has pre-ordered the Blu-Ray of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  Loud cheers!! 9781408856888

Saturdays @ the South: Women & Fiction

6a00d83451b01369e201b8d08b9d2f970c-piThis week, I read an article in which an author described how, after submitting a novel to agents and publishers and receiving discouraging responses from the few who responded to her at all, she decided to submit her novel to the same group of people posing as a male author. She received several responses right away (this was on a weekend, mind you) from people who wanted to set up a meeting immediately and discuss her manuscript. Sadly, I should have been more surprised than I was when I read this. While this is just one woman’s experience, I fear that it still displays a bias that is prevalent in literature today. Men still dominate the publishing world, despite strides that have been made by women over the last 60 years or so.

Clearly this is not a new struggle. The Bronte sisters are among a host of pre-20th Century authors who published under male woman and bookspseudonyms hoping that it would open doors for them. It’s easy to think that this issue is an outdated problem associated with the misogyny of a less-illuminated, pre-women’s movement time. However, male or androgynous pen names are still being used in modern literature. For example, despite what ultimately became a smashing success that altered the landscape of children’s literature, J.K. Rowling’s publishers asked her to change her first name to something more neutral so that it would attract more “boy readers.”

The problem extends beyond the perception of women writers, though. Sources are beginning to notice that men are published more often than women and are reviewed (which to many means, taken more seriously) more often than women. It is precisely this bias that incited author Kamila Shamsie to put out a call for publishers to spend a year (2018) publishing only women authors as a way to rectify the imbalance in the world of literature. So far, only one publisher has taken up the cause. What’s been called Shamsie’s “provocation” has been a way to at least call attention to the existing gaps.

This is not to say that men don’t write amazing things or that male authors don’t have any further relevance in contemporary literature.  Both men and women comprise my list of favorite authors (though in light of what I’m writing here, I feel compelled to admit that there are more men than women on that list) and men are still publishing great things. As a society seeking gender equality, beginning a conversation in which inequalities are exposed can only help us achieve what we’re striving for. Nothing can change if no one discusses the problem and everyone assumes things are as they should be. We shouldn’t stop reading what men write if we enjoy it, but discovering what women have to offer can’t hurt either.

Here are some suggestions by women authors that are worth exploring:

3370887The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Known largely for Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert is quite possibly more honest, lyrical and exciting in her fiction than her non-fiction or even her TED talks. This story follows Alma Whittaker a 19th-Century naturalist as she searches for truth and meaning and science in the study of plant life. As she gains more experience, she publishes her work and blazing a trail into the burgeoning thoughts of evolutionary theory. While she falls in love, is caretaker for her father and has overseas adventures throughout the novel it is Alma’s meticulousness in observation and her ability to forge her own path that makes this such a compelling read. Gilbert has researched and created a richly detailed, highly complex historical figure with whom the reader can truly sympathize precisely because she is so real on the page.

3186189The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

This is a book that could easily get dismissed as a work of the oft-vilified term “chick-lit.” In all honesty, I was fully prepared not to like it. Diffenbaugh proved me very wrong. This is a layered work, in part following the exploits of a newly-emancipated foster child, Victoria Jones as she is left to face life on her own and also exploring the troubled past that has led her to where she is now. Diffenbaugh explores the themes of love, heartache and the qualities that truly make a family with the underlying current of the language of flowers, the Victorian ideal of meaning for specific blooms. The story is heartbreaking, touching and completely engrossing.

2144240The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri is immensely talented in portraying the displacement of a cultural outsider and the struggle of an immigrant to fit into a new world of ideals and customs. Her Pulitzer-Prize winning Interpreter of Maladies displayed this talent in short form. In The Namesake, her first novel, she explores these themes amidst family dynamics as the Gangulis, struggle to balance their new life with their cultural Bengali traditions and settling into their new home. Their son, Gogol, struggles with his own identity, reflecting what his parents and traditions expect versus what he, himself wishes to become and on his own terms. This book is beautifully written and deeply engaging.

3012948Bossypants by Tina Fey

This isn’t a work of fiction, and I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, but amidst her reflections on her own life, Fey espouses many of the same feminist thoughts and notes similar traits in the comedy world that sparked the debate in gender inequality in publishing. the writing is smart, funny with a healthy dose of sarcasm, making her entry into the gender inequality conversation delightfully palatable.

2131610Daughter of Fortune by Isabelle Allende

Part of what’s so great about the Classics book group at the Main library, is that the group is open to reconsidering what is and is not a “classic.” This was a selection last fall and while it is not technically a classic in the traditional sense of the term, many felt that it was bound to become one. Allende writes soulfully about longing and loss, coming of age and coming into one’s own and somehow manages to frame these themes in a globe-trotting historical adventure that is both riveting and heartwarming from cover to cover.

Bonus picks:

2260048Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I know, I know. This book and its ensuing miniseries have already been discussed by both me and the Library’s own version of a Bloggess (who has been faithfully posting despite her London locale). I will not further entrench all of you into the delights of the magical alternate-England that Clarke has created. Nor will I wax on about her engaging, highly-readable prose that captures the reader upon the first syllable. Instead, I offer this book solely as evidence for the naysayers who claim that women can’t write engaging, complex, well thought-out male characters. Magic aside, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell are as realistic on the page as any flesh-and-blood man.

2941777In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

The Library’s community Big Read this September happens to be written by a woman and this book is a wonderful example of the transformative power of prose. Alvarez treats the story of the Mirabal sisters with sensitivity, but not kid gloves, shedding light on a dark period of Dominican history that I’m sure many would rather keep hidden (hence the book’s status as a Banned Book). Who knows, maybe she’ll have something to say about the status of women in the literary world when she Skypes with the Library on September 2nd.

That’s this week’s dispatch from the South Branch. Till we meet again next Saturday, keep on reading whatever you enjoy, but consider reading one of these or other woman authors and have your own part in the conversation.


One Night Only, Frederick Douglass

“Come with me, Douglass; I will defend you with my life. I want you for a special purpose.”

John Brown to Frederick Douglass before the Harpers Ferry Raid

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879.  George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #:  200-FL-22 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #:  113
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection)
Exact Date Shot Unknown
NARA FILE #: 200-FL-22

Of the many people who have spoken at the Peabody Institute, few could speak to the types of experiences that Frederick Douglass faced when he spoke on Tuesday, December 16, 1873. When the doors to the Lyceum opened at 7 PM “every available chair in the building was pressed into service and the platform furnished seats for a few more, […] both aisles and the gallery were overflowing also,” The Peabody Press reported. It was estimated that nearly 300 people had to be turned away. Before Douglass, the most well attended event at the Peabody Institute was Gillmore’s Band, which performed in the Lyceum.

Why did so many people want to hear Douglass speak? This escaped slave turned famous orator was by 1873 well-known both nationally and internationally, in part because of his autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, which was published in 1845. Douglass was also an outspoken supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. The year before Douglass’ speech at the Peabody Institute Lyceum, he was nominated for Vice President of the United States – the first African American ever nominated for that position – on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

Back at the Lyceum in 1873, the lucky ones who attended Douglass’ lecture faced additional issues. Because of the stale air and cigarette and cigar smoke, along with poor ventilation because the lecture was held during the winter, some in attendance fainted, which “caused much sympathy from many others oppressed” by the heat and foul air. Douglass was not the only person on the stage. He shared it with the Mayor of Lynn and Rev. Beebe of England who also had his daughter along. Yet when Douglass started to speak, everyone listened, transfixed, for the nearly two hour duration of his speech.

The name of Douglass’ lecture was titled “Reminiscences of Slavery and Anti-Slavery” and since the lecture took place less than ten years after the end of the Civil War, it would have resonated significantly with most in the crowd. He spoke not of his own experiences, which he had done in the area previously, but of a moment that he had with John Brown regarding Harpers Ferry. While there is no existing transcript of Douglass’ speech, based on The Peabody Press article, as well as other sources, Douglass may have spoken about his last meeting with John Brown in Chambersburg, PA where Brown made his final arrangements to raid Harpers Ferry.

In Douglass’ autobiography The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he talks about his final meeting with Brown and how Brown had finally committed to taking hostages at Harpers Ferry, which would allow Brown to “dictate terms of egress from the town.” Douglass told Brown that his plan would not work and that he was “striking a blow which should instantly rouse the country […].” He was against Brown’s plan and urged him not to go through with it. Despite Douglass’ pleas, John Brown followed through on his plans to take Harpers Ferry. He failed, was tried, found guilty and hung. To many abolitionists, Brown died a martyr, but others blamed him for fueling the fire that helped lead to the Civil War. We may never know Douglass’ thoughts at the Lyceum lecture, but in a speech given about John Brown at the Fourteenth Anniversary of Storer College (a historically black college located in Harpers Ferry) in 1881, Douglass noted that those who perpetuated slavery were more to blame than Brown.

Although Douglass was about fifty-five at the time of his Lyceum lecture, the Peabody Press states “his voice was clear, his diction faultless, his style vigorous and masterly and no prejudice can fail to accord him high hours as master in the art of eloquence.” Once Douglass finished he received a thunderous applause from the audience. According to the Twenty-Second Peabody Institute Annual Report, Douglas was paid $100 to speak which would be about $1,948.10 today.

Though Douglass only spoke at the Library once, his topic and message may have struck a chord with Library Trustees on the Lyceum Committee. In the Annual Report the Lyceum Committee members noted that “It is of the highest importance that first class lecturers be secured, while it is of less importance what is the theme […].” In prior years the lectures were formed around a theme or had similarities that ran through the lecture series. And from the 1873 lecture series onward, the lectures would cover wider topics and themes.

Keep the Lights On…A Thoroughly Creepy If/Then Post…

In 1773, a woman named Anne Letitia Aiken became one of the first people to actually discuss what it meant to be a reader, and how the act of reading can change a person.  Her essay was entitled “On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror”, and in it, she pretty much explained how we can enjoy reading things that scare our pants off.  Essentially, as long as the images presented to the reader are fantastic in nature, or somehow outside their everyday existence, reading scary stuff can arouse a sense of excitement, unabated by feelings of genuine, self-preserving, life-at-risk fear.  So reading about ghosts in someone else’s house can be fun, even if finding one in your own house just…isn’t.  That is, unless you’re like my six-year-old self, and never actually recovered from reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.  And that is perfectly ok, too.

But maybe this theory explains why my somewhat-grown-up self loves reading scary stuff in the summertime.  Maybe the abundance of sunshine makes the contrast between the real world (if that is what we must call the world outside of the books) and the shadowy depths of a haunted house that much more profound, and the heat of the day makes the shivers of fear that much more enjoyable.  Who knows… maybe my inner six-year-old is trying to prove herself again.  Whatever the cause, summertime means that I start checking out ghost stories and dark, inexplicable tales by the armful.  And I am hoping that there are those among you, beloved patrons, who feel the same.  If so, then here are some selections to make your breezy summer days a little more hair-raising….

If you enjoy scary stories in the summer, Then be sure to check out….

3539368Rooms: Though she established herself in the New Adult genre, Lauren Oliver’s first foray in the horror genre manages to be hauntingly beautiful, remarkably creative, and genuinely unsettling from first to last.  The action of this story takes place in the country home of the miserly and recently-deceased Richard Walker.  But when Richard’s ex-wife and two children show up to clean out this estate, they quickly realize they aren’t alone.  Two female ghosts have inhabited the house for years, watching the family’s every move–and feeling watched, in return.  These ghosts speak through the heating vents, through the creaks in the floor boards, and through the flickering of the lights.  Think about that every time you hear an odd noise in the dark….then try this hum-dinger of a book.

2928695House of Leaves: Hey, speaking on the topic of Houses That Are Terrifying, Mark Z. Danielewski’s mind-bending novel is a sure-fire way to develop a phobia of your own home.  Superficially speaking, this is a story about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  And before you start making Dr. Who references, it’s not that kind of house.  This is the kind of house in which you get lost.  Forever.  As new rooms, hallways, and doors to nowhere open up like a nightmare.  But what makes this story particularly chilling is the format.  Danielewski tells  story-within-a-story-within-a-story in this book, meshing the narrative with copious, detailed, and occasionally mad footnotes, colored letters, and text that trips across the pages backwards and forwards and slantways, making the act of reading a physical exploration.  You can’t help but feel like an explorer while reading this book, but the more you discover, the more uneasy you will feel.

3136591Those Across the River:  We’ve discussed this book previously, I think, but it still bears mentioning again.  Christopher Buehlman frequently utilizes fairytales and folklore to drive his stories, and this whole book reads like a horrible, beautiful fable.  Ex-professor Frank Nichols and his beloved Eudora moved to his family’s southern plantation in the years after the First World War, seeking out some peace and quiet, and hoping to give Frank a place to write his book about the horrible history of their new house.  But it’s quickly evident that something is very wrong about their new town.  People are frightened, clinging to ancient rituals meant to appease “those” who live in the forests–forests that no one in town will enter.  To be honest, I was rather let down by the ending of this book, but I think that was largely a personal thing–I’d love to know what other readers have to say about this claustrophobic, dreamlike setting, and the gradually revelation about the horrible truth that lurks in the dark shadows of the forest…

2088053Shutter Island: Though this might not be a straight-up horror novel, Dennis Lehane knows how to write a story that will keep you up too late, and leave you breathless.  Even if you’ve seen the film version of this story with Leonardo DiCaprio, make sure to check out the novel, as well.  U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels has been sent to an asylum for the criminally insane, located on the titular Shuttle Island, in Boston Harbor–one of the inmates is missing, but with no where for them to run, Teddy knows that something odd has happened within the asylum’s walls.  And the longer he investigates, the stranger–and more sinister–this case grows.  I don’t care if you figure out the kicker to this story.  I figured it out within the first chapter.  But it doesn’t matter.  This story is still so visceral, atmospheric, and bewilderingly addictive that you still won’t be able to put it down…or sleep afterwards….


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