Tag Archives: Author Days

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy birthday to Vietnamese poet, Tản Đà!

Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu (who used the pen name Tản Đà), was born on this day in 1889 in what is now Khe Thuong, close to Hanoi.  His father was Mandarin, Chinese, and, as a result, Tản Đà learned to speak and read Chinese, which provided him the opportunity to read a wealth of Western literature in translation (which weren’t available in Vietnamese).  His mother was a well-known singer, and it is from her that Tản Đà learned a love of the theater, and also of poetry.  Tản Đà would go on to write a number of plays, poems, and essays, and also translated a number of Chinese works into Vietnamese in order to share his love of literature with others.  His poetry, especially, is recognized today as “transitional”–that is, he blended traditional forms of poetry, images, and tropes, with Western forms of poetry, particularly from France (who controlled the area we now know as Vietnam).

Today, in honor of Tản Đà’s birthday, we wanted to share one of his poems with you (in translation).  We hope you enjoy!

The Hanoi Botanical Gardens, Courtesy of Vietnamtourism

A Stroll at the Flower Nursery

(The Hanoi Botanical Gardens)

Its distance from Hanoi’s streets is near, not far,
Could there be anything more delightful than the flower nursery?
Having a chance I stroll to cheer myself up,
Go up there at noon for some fresh air, sit and hum a tune.
Sitting, I sadly remember the stories of old:
The capitol Thang Long built long, long ago.
Were there castles, monuments, and palaces here,
Or just a few trees, patches of grass, and some flowers?
But it’s certain that since the Westerners came,
We’ve gotten an iron cage to enclose and tend the animals:
Strange beasts, beautiful birds, and shade trees,
Wide, splendid roads, and pleasant views.
During the three months of summer, many people stroll through,
Especially on cool afternoons, there are crowds of all stripes.
Monsieur, Madame, Japanese, and Chinese,
Magistrates, secretaries, old scholars, servants and nursemaids.
Cars, horses, people all come by,
Standing here, going there, talking a little with a laugh.
Butterflies take to wing, the color of fluttering shirts,
The fragrance of magnolia spreads like a perfume.
The afternoon’s late, the funlovers all have left,
At the tree’s root, sighing, I sit alone.
Of the Ly, Tran, and Le kings, all is lost,
But the sight of deer leisurely taking their stroll.

And now…on to the books!

The Fact of a Body: It took Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich years to write this “true crime memoir”, and years longer to find a publisher, but, to judge by all the popular and critical acclaim that she has received for her work, the wait was well worth it.  The child of two lawyers, a younger Marzano-Lesnevich took a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder.  She believed herself to be staunchly against the death penalty–the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes.  As soon as she hears his voice, she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.  finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime.  But another surprise awaits: She wasn’t the only one who saw her life in Ricky’s.  A story about hope and forgiveness, and whether a single narrative can ever actually access “truth”, this is a tale as complicated as human interactions, strikingly honest, and unlike anything you’ve read before.  Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a starred review, calling it “Haunting…impeccably researched…Her writing is remarkably evocative and taut with suspense, with a level of nuance that sets this effort apart from other true crime accounts.”

New Boy: Shakespeare re-tellings are all the rage, and no one is enjoying themselves more than Hogarth Books, who are publishing a whole series of re-tellings, including this work by beloved author Tracy Chevalier that re-imagines Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello in a school yard in 1970’s Washington, DC.  In Chevalier’s world, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day in another new school.  He knows he’s fortunate to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.  Though Chevalier’s work initially seems like it’s on a smaller scale than Shakespeare’s epic, this work still carries the weight of international politics, decades of racial tension, and the true horror of bullying, making this story about so much more than childhood mistakes and inherited prejudices.  Booklist agrees, saying that in Chevalier’s hands, “the playground is as rife with poisonous intrigue as any monarch’s court… Chevalier’s brilliantly concentrated and galvanizing improvisation thoroughly exposes the malignancy and tragedy of racism, sexism, jealousy, and fear.”

How to be Human: To understand this book, you should probably know that London is full of foxes, and they are really quite friendly (I lived in terror of the one in my backyard for months before realizing it wasn’t going to savage me).  Anyways, that fact becomes very important in Guardian columnist Paula Cocozza’s debut work, where Mary lives in a London suburb beset by urban foxes. On leave from work, unsettled by the proximity of her ex, and struggling with her hostile neighbors, Mary has become increasingly captivated by a magnificent fox who is always in her garden. First she sees him wink at her, then he brings her presents, and finally she invites him into her house. As the boundaries between the domestic and the wild blur, and the neighbors set out to exterminate the fox, it is unclear if Mary will save the fox, or the fox save Mary.  Partially a picture of a mental breakdown, partially a social commentary, and wholly fascinating, this is another book that will have you questioning reality and truth and identity, but in wholly unique ways.  The Times Literary Supplement loved this book, calling in, in its review, “Enchanting… For all its suggestiveness and sensuality, Cocozza’s narrative is artfully restrained . . . In this startling debut, Cocozza seems to be saying that, no matter how lonely the city becomes, through an open window a mass of life is listening back.”

Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently: Beau Lotto is the world-renowned neuroscientist, who studies the biological, psychological, and computational methods of human perception–that is, what the brain takes in, what is does with that information, and how it processes it into a form of understanding in the context of the world in which it lives.  In his infectiously fun and infuriating first book, Lotto tackles all the problems our brains have with perception, and proves, with a whole bunch of optical illusions, illustrations, and examples, that we aren’t seeing the world “as it is” at all–we are seeing what our beautiful, amazing, not-quite-unbiased brains are telling us to see.  But realizing the mechanisms that our brain uses to process information, and to understand why it makes the errors it does, is to come to love your brain even more, especially in a book like this one, that takes such delight in its subject matter.  Kirkus Reviews loved this book too, calling it a “sprightly look into the nature of things…Lotto’s provocative investigation into the mysterious workings of the mind will make readers just that much smarter.”

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women: When her five-year-old son was killed by a van driving down their street, Susan Burton had no access to grief counseling or other forms of professional help.  As a result, Susan self-medicated, becoming addicted first to cocaine, then crack.  As a resident of South Los Angeles, a black community heavily targeted by the “War on Drugs”, it was but a matter of time before Susan was arrested. She cycled in and out of prison for over fifteen years, and was never offered the chance of rehabilitation until she found it on her own.  Once she got clean, Susan dedicated her life to supporting women facing similar struggles.  Her organization, A New Way of Life, operates five safe homes in Los Angeles that supply a lifeline to hundreds of formerly incarcerated women and their children—setting them on the track to education and employment rather than returns to prison.  In this book, Ms. Burton not only shares her own story with journalist Cari Lynn, but also lays out her ideas and policies for helping formerly incarcerated people live a life of dignity and fulfillment.  Susan Burton has been praised by artists, CEOs, and activists alike, and this book makes it easy to see why.  Publisher’s Weekly  stated in its review that “Susan Burton is a national treasure . . . her life story is testimony to the human capacity for resilience and recovery.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy birthday to Turkish novelist, poet, and playwright Murathan Mungan!  Mungan, who was born this day in 1955, to an Arab father and a Bosnian  mother, is one of Turkey’s most respected and well-known writers, as well as being a champion of LGBT rights in Turkey.  His works deal with topics such as the Kurdish conflict, political Islam and gender issues.  You can read some of his beautiful poetry (in translation) via the Words Without Borders website.

Murathan Mungan, courtesy of FotoKritik

In 2014, Mungan sat down for an interview with Qantara.de, an Internet portal that represents the concerted effort of organizations within the German Foreign Office to promote dialogue with the Islamic world.  In the interview, which you can read in its entirety here, Mungan talks about language, about optimism, and about the potential for creating a better future through dialog.  In honor of his special day, we thought we’d share a few of his insights here with you.  And just a note, remember that this interview took place in 2014, right around the time that then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became President.  Perhaps these words have even more meaning for all of us now:

You say you don’t like the word optimistic, but in general you always seem optimistic when it comes to developments in Turkey. At the same time, you once said that you can do anything in Turkey, but you’re not allowed to disgrace yourself. Do you still feel as positive following the accusations of corruption against representatives of the AKP, which so far have not been followed up?

Mungan: First of all, I have to say that, as far as my own life goes, I’m no butterfly happily fluttering around. But I try not to think in terms of categories like optimistic, pessimistic, happy, unhappy, hopeful, hopeless; I try to find an objective yardstick, to see the entire picture, the whole process.

There’s a quote from a French thinker, whose name I can’t remember, who said: my experiences make me pessimistic; my will makes me optimistic. That’s the best way to describe my attitude. We have to find new paths of resistance. And I think the greatest resistance is to do what you do best. The system can take everything from me, but my ability and my belief in what I do best will always remain.

And speaking of doing what we do best, here’s some of the books have marched across our shelves this week for your reading pleasure!

Ararat: I know I’ve been waiting to meet this book for a while now, so it was lovely to see all the terrific reviews that have been pouring in for Christopher Golden’s newest novel!  When an earthquake reveals a secret cave hidden inside Mount Ararat in Turkey, a daring, newly-engaged couple are determined to be the first ones inside…and what they discover will change everything.  The cave is actually an ancient, buried ship that many quickly come to believe is really Noah’s Ark. When a team of scholars, archaeologists, and filmmakers make it inside the ark, they discover an elaborate coffin in its recesses. Inside the coffin they find an ugly, misshapen cadaver―not the holy man they expected, but a hideous creature with horns. Shock and fear turn to horror when a massive blizzard blows in, trapping them thousands of meters up the side of a remote mountain.  I’m in love with Josh Malerman’s cover blurb, so I’m going to share it with you here: “Let the other blurbers tell you how thrilling, how frightening, how robust this book is. They’re right to do it. But the thing that struck me deepest about Ararat is how timely this tale is for the world right now. The men and women in the book are treated as equals; in strength, in smarts, in power. Muslims are set to marry Jews. Scientists and Christians are working on the same edgy project. And yet, they all fear the same way. And they hope the same way, too. If ever we could use a story that reminds us that we’re together, a singular race, in religion and gender, that time is now. Bravo, Christopher Golden, for sewing such enormous themes into a nail-biting, exhilarating book.”

Finding Gideon:  Eric Jerome Dickey is one of those writers whose books are taut, exciting, daring, and envelope-pushing (if that’s a phrase), but they also focus on a number of issues that don’t normally get discussed–at least so overtly–in mysteries.  In this fifth outing for Dickey’s much-beloved hitman Gideon, the job is taking its toll. Neither Gideon nor the city of Buenos Aires has recovered from the mayhem caused during Gideon’s last job. But before the dust has settled and the bodies have been buried, Gideon calls in backup—including the lovely Hawks, with whom Gideon has heated memories—to launch his biggest act of revenge yet…one he believes will destroy his adversary, Midnight, once and for all.  Yet Midnight and his second-in-command, the beautiful and ruthless Señorita Raven, are launching their own revenge, assembling a team of mercenaries the likes of which the world has never seen… and Gideon isn’t their only target. Gideon will need all of his skills if he is to save not only his team, but his family as well.  This is a story, and a series, that blends soap-opera levels of drama with plenty of action, suspense, and vivid characters that is sure to keep readers enthralled.  Booklist certainly was, as they noted in their review “Dickey steadily generates a taut, deadly atmosphere throughout the book, and readers will not be able to predict who will be the last man standing”.

American War: Journalist Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, which is part dystopian sci-fi, part social commentary, and part action-thriller, has been winning acclaim from readers and reviewers alike, for good reason.  Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.   El Akkad’s own courage in defying genre expectations from start to finish, and his willingness to examine the darkest parts of our current interactions has earned him a great deal of attention, with The Washington Post cautioning ““Follow the tributaries of today’s political combat a few decades into the future and you might arrive at something as terrifying as Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Across these scarred pages rages the clash that many of us are anxiously speculating about in the Trump era: a nation riven by irreconcilable ideologies, alienated by entrenched suspicions. . . . both poignant and horrifying.”

Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression: Any time I hear that someone loves Julia Child as much as I do, I want to hear their story, and James Beard-Award winner David Letie’s story is a truly remarkable one that speaks to readers on a number of levels.  Born into a family of Azorean immigrants, David Leite grew up in the 1960s in a devoutly Catholic, blue-collar, food-crazed Portuguese home in Fall River, Massachusetts. A clever and determined dreamer with a vivid imagination and a flair for the dramatic, “Banana”, as his mother endearingly called him, fell in love with everything French, thanks to his Portuguese and French-Canadian godmother. But David also struggled with the emotional devastation of manic depression. Until he was diagnosed in his mid-thirties, David found relief from his wild mood swings in learning about food, watching Julia Child, and cooking for others.  This is a story about self-acceptance, perseverance, and determination, and about using your talents not only for others, but to save yourself, and is winning reviews from psychologists, cooks, and readers alike, with Booklist calling it “Warm, witty…sometimes heartbreaking . . . Fans of the author’s James Beard Award-winning website, Leite’s Culinaria . . . won’t be surprised by his wonderful sense of humor and his keen powers of observation . . . candid and charming.”

H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City DevilIf you’ve read Eric Larson’s seminal work Devil in the White City, you’ll have heard plenty about H.H. Holmes, the super-villain of Larson’s work.  But in this new book, Adam Selzer, host of the Mysterious Chicago blog, delves into Holmes’ biography to create a true-crime book that aficionados will savor.  Though Holmes has become just as famous now as he was in 1895, a deep analysis of contemporary materials makes very clear how much of the story as we know came from reporters who were nowhere near the action, a dangerously unqualified new police chief, and, not least, lies invented by Holmes himself.  The cover blurb notes that “Selzer has unearthed tons of stunning new data about Holmes”, and while I’m not sure if that’s a metric measurement or a gross exaggeration, he certainly is earning plenty of acclaim from other true-crime authors, and Publisher’s Weekly had this to say: “When the unprecedented success of Erik Larson’s Devil in The White City stirred up renewed interest in serial killer H.H. Holmes, Selzer made it his mission to painstakingly research Holmes’ life, family, and crimes with intense determination and doggedness. The result is this comprehensive, compelling, and surprising biography of Holmes, written in a conversational style, as if we are passengers on one of Selzer’s tours…Using thousands of primary sources to draw the most accurate picture of this American villain yet, Selzer keeps the delicate balance of salacious (and mundane) details maintained with solid facts. What emerges is a picture of a terrible but intriguing man, one who continues to capture our imagination over a century later, and one whose story leaps off the page in Selzer’s uniquely suited hands.”

Until next week, beloved patrons, happy reading!

Happy Birthday, Ben Okri!

The Free For All is delighted to wish novelist and poet Ben Okri a very happy birthday today!

Okri was born in Nigeria, but spent his early childhood in London while his father, Silver was studying law.  The family returned to their home in Nigeria in 1968, where Silver practiced, doing pro bono work for anyone who could not pay his fees. The family survived the Nigerian Civil War, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, an event that would, understandably, have a deep impact on his later work.

Okri applied for university at the age of 14, but was rejected because of his age.  It was, according to him, at that moment that he knew that poetry was his calling.  Though he eventually made it back to England to study in 1978 (thanks to a grant from the Nigerian government), when his scholarship funding fell through, Okri found himself homeless, living off the support of his friends and often sleeping in parks.  This didn’t deter his desire to be a poet, however–if anything, Okri has said that this period actually solidified his desire to write.  And it was writing, in the end, that saved him.  He published his first book, Flowers and Shadows in 1980 at the age of 21, and quickly found work as a poetry editor and reported for the BBC World Service.  His reputation as an author was secured when his novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991, making Okri the youngest-ever winner for that prize.

Okri is one of those rare writers who can blend folklore, myth, philosophy, and all these other academic, deep-thinking concepts into a writing style that is touching, accessible, and deeply engaging.  In discussing his writing, Okri stated in an interview (quoted here from The Patriotic Vanguard from Sierra Leone), “I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death … Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone’s reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language. We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there’s more to the fabric of life. I’m fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.”

So today, in celebration, we share with you a poem by Ben Okri, courtesy of The Patriotic Vanguard:

An African Elegy
By Ben Okri

We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth.

There are things that burn me now
Which turn golden when I am happy.
Do you see the mystery of our pain?
That we bear poverty
And are able to sing and dream sweet things

And that we never curse the air when it is warm
Or the fruit when it tastes so good
Or the lights that bounce gently on the waters?
We bless things even in our pain.
We bless them in silence.

That is why our music is so sweet.
It makes the air remember.
There are secret miracles at work
That only Time will bring forth.
I too have heard the dead singing.

And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here

And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.


Five Book Friday!

And a very happy birthday to author and academic, Judith Butler!

Though perhaps not a widely known theoretician, Butler is revered and oft-discussed in the field of gender and women’s studies for her study of gender performance.  It’s a notoriously difficult concept–essentially, trying to determine whether we behave as “women” or “men”, and relate to each other as such, as a result of biological factors or cultural expectations.  Or both.  Which means we can’t not act that way, because there is no room to do otherwise (unless cultures change to make it possible, in which case, we have to start the process over again).

In the end, however, as I explain to my students (those poor kids), what Butler’s arguments all boil down to, is “what makes a life worth grievable”?  What characteristics of a life make it worth remembering, worth defending?  And what qualities make it forgettable, expendable?  And that question, I think, pulls us out of the realm of academia and forces us to confront the ties that bind us all together and that, ultimately, make us, and everyone around us, and in contact with us, and on the planet along with us, human.  It forces us to think about the act of empathy, and why we can walk in some people’s shoes, but refuse to try on others.  And, just maybe, it might make us willing to try to forge new connections, and realize how we are all, really, fundamentally, connected.  To use her words, from Gender Trouble, “Let’s face it.  We’re undone by each other.  And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” (19)

And the beautiful part is that Butler extends this lesson not only to our current day existence, but to literature, as well.  In one of her more recent books, Frames of War, Butler talks about poetry, and why poems written by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were destroyed under the allegation that they were a threat to national security.  And her answer is that poetry, as an art form and a personal statement, is a way of not only documenting the harm done to the body, but also it’s ability to survive.  Writing about your condition, and allowing another to read your words, creates a bond that makes for a grievable life:

The words are carved in cups, written on paper, recorded onto a surface, in an effort to leave a mark, a trace, of a living being – a sign formed by the body, a sign that carries the life of the body. And even when what happens to a body is not survivable, the words survive to say as much. (59)

Which is just one of the reasons we are so grateful, every day, to be able to share stories with you.  And why we celebrate Judith Butler today.

And, speaking of books…..here are some new ones that skipped onto our shelves this week and are eager to meet you.

Stalin and the ScientistsScientists throughout history, from Galileo to today’s experts on climate change, have often had to contend with politics in their pursuit of knowledge. But in the Soviet Union, where the ruling elites embraced, patronized, and even fetishized science like never before, scientists lived their lives on a knife edge. The Soviet Union had the best-funded scientific establishment in history. Scientists were elevated as popular heroes and lavished with awards and privileges. But if their ideas or their field of study lost favor with the elites, they could be exiled, imprisoned, or murdered. And yet they persisted.  In this fascinating tale, Simon Ings traces the lives of some of the USSR’s most noted scientists, from the beginning of Russia’s revolutionary period in 1905 until the death of Stalin in 1953.  Though it is a story of incredible triumphs, breakthroughs, and globally-significant discoveries, it is also a heartrending story of folly and ignorance, as Ings looks at Stalin’s power over his intellectuals, and the damage he inflicted on scientists and their field by refusing to give up outdated notions of biology (and, for a time, denying the existence of genes), and punishing those who refuted him.  The book is not only one for those looking to learn more about the vagaries of Soviet history, but also for science enthusiasts who are looking for the compelling human side to some of the 20th century’s most notable breakthroughs.  Ings’ work has already been nominated for several non-fiction awards, and the UK’s Sunday Business Post said in it’s review, “[Ings] has an eye for the interactions between the worlds of the laboratory, the print room and the corridors of power . . . Stalin and the Scientists is a fascinating read. Well researched and written in a lively and engaging style, it grips like a good novel would.”

Shining CityTom Rosenstiel’s debut thriller has been getting thumbs-up from a number of fellow authors and critics alike for it’s twists, turns, and unrelenting pace.  Peter Rena is a “fixer.” He and his partner, Randi Brooks, earn their living making the problems of the powerful disappear. They get their biggest job yet when the White House hires them to vet the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Judge Roland Madison is a legal giant, but he’s a political maverick, with views that might make the already tricky confirmation process even more difficult.  But while Rena and his team put all their efforts into investigating the judge–and thwarting the attempted interventions of Washington’s elite–a series of seemingly random killings begins to overlap with their case, and it seems Judge Madison is the intended target.  Rosentiel himself is the executive director of the American Press Institute, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and founder of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, so he certainly knows his politics, his personalities, and how to tell a gripping tale.  Though this is his first foray into fiction, Library Journal didn’t hesitate to give the book a starred review, saying it “shines with page-turning intensity that will make readers hope that this book is the beginning of a new series. Highly recommended for legal and political thriller junkies and fans of David Baldacci and John Grisham.”

The PossessionsAnother debut here, this one dealing with death, desire, and the lengths that both will force us to go.  In the world that Sara Flannery Murphy has created, people (known as ‘bodies’) are employed to embody the deceased, by wearing their clothes, and taking a pill called lotuses to summon spirits and dampen their own thoughts.   Edie has been a body at the Elysian Society for five years, an unusual record. Her success is the result of careful detachment, and a total refusal to get involved in her clients’ lives.  But when Edie channels Sylvia, the dead wife of recent widower Patrick Braddock, she becomes obsessed with the glamorous couple. Despite the murky circumstances surrounding Sylvia’s drowning, Edie breaks her own rules and pursues Patrick, moving deeper into his life, even as her own begins to unravel.  An unsettling, unexpected, and totally gripping tale of secrets, lies, obsession, and loss, this book is getting wild reviews from a wide audience of critics, writers, and readers, including Publisher’s Weekly, who gave it a starred review, and called it “Suspenseful….a beautifully rendered, haunting page-turner.”

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History: There.  That got your attention, didn’t it?  For centuries scientists have written off cannibalism as a bizarre phenomenon with little biological significance. Its presence in nature was dismissed as a desperate response to starvation or other life-threatening circumstances, and few spent time studying it. A taboo subject in our culture, the behavior was portrayed mostly through horror movies or tabloids sensationalizing the crimes of real-life flesh-eaters. But the true nature of cannibalism–the role it plays in evolution as well as human history–is even more intriguing (and more normal) than the misconceptions we’ve come to accept as fact.  In this work, Bill Schutt, a professor of biology at Long Island University delves into both science and history to look at why certain species consume themselves, and what significance that carries.  The result is a bizarre and wonderful genre cross-over that spans continents and species to look at a practice that has been much discussed, but seldom truly considered.

The One Inside: Another debut…of a sort….this is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard’s first long work, and deals, as so many of his plays have done, on issues of memory, death, and the distance between the past and the present.  We begin in a man’s house at dawn in rural America, as the man himself tries to follow the journey of his life, but the more he travels, the more his perspective begins to shift; first from his life to that of his late father’s, from his home to the broader landscape of the American midwest, and from his individual life to that of his father’s young girlfriend, with whom the man was also involved.  Filled with references to the places the man has been, the sights he’s seen, the culture (and drugs) he’s ingested, and the scars he bears, this is a haunting dreamscape of a book that is poignant and haunting and utterly unique.  Kirkus Reviews agrees, calling Shepard’s work “An elegiac amble through blowing dust and greasy spoons, the soundtrack the whine of truck engines and the howl of coyotes. . . . It’s a story to read not for the inventiveness of its plot but for its just-right language and image.”

Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday to Sadegh Hedayat, Iranian author, poet, and intellectual, who was born this day in 1903.

Hedayat was raised in an aristocratic family with many ties to the French imperial government and, as a result, was sent to Europe to receive a “western” education at a fairly early age.  Initially, he planned to become an engineer, but after falling in love with the architecture of Paris, Hedayat decided to become an architect…and later a dentist….in the end, he returned to Iran without a degree, and held a number of jobs while devoting his life to studying Iranian history, prose, folktales, and myths.

He produced a considerable body of work, including short stories, poems, travel pieces, and literary criticism, all of which attempted to move Iranian literature into the ‘modern’ world.  At the same time, he began heavily criticizing what he perceived to be the two major causes of Iran’s decimation: the monarchy and the clergy, and through his stories he tried to impute the deafness and blindness of the nation to the abuses of these two major powers.  His most well-known work, The Blind Owl, is a startling piece of modernism that confronts human beings’ inherent lack of ‘civilization’, while also confronting head-on the anguish of living under repression.  The book was originally published with a stamp that read  “Not for sale or publication in Iran.”, but was serialized there after the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941.  Sadegh Hedayat committed suicide in Paris in 1951, leaving behind a body of work that is still striking today for its insights and its impact, and a legacy of being the first modernist in Iranian literature.

And speaking of literature….here are some of the books that trudged through this week’s snow to make it onto our shelves this week!


Universal HarvesterIf the holographic cover on this creepy little tome doesn’t catch your eye, then I certainly hope the blurb will.  John Darnielle takes the current literary love of nostalgia and turns it into something dark, disquieting, and subtly spellbinding.  The story is set in the late 1990’s in the tiny town of Nevada, Iowa, where very little ever happens, and where Jeremy works at the local Video Hut.  But his quiet routine is disrupted when a local school teacher returns a movie with an odd complaint–that there’s something on the tape that shouldn’t be there.  When several more such complaints come in, Jeremy risks taking one of the videos home…and discovers that there is, indeed, something recorded in the middle of the film.  Each interruption is dark, disturbing, sometimes violent, features no faces, but shows enough landmarks for him to tell that they were filmed right outside of town.  And trying to track down just what is behind these strange scenes will lead Jeremy and his friends deep into their own landscapes, and on a journey that stretches into both the past and the future, with consequences that no one ever imagined.  This  novel is getting a heap of praise from a number of outlets, including Booklist, who gave it a starred review and hailed, “Darnielle’s masterfully disturbing follow-up to the National Book Award-nominated Wolf in White Van reads like several Twilight Zone scripts cut together by a poet . . . All the while, [Darnielle’s] grasp of the Iowan composure-above-all mindset instills the book with agonizing heartbreak.”

AutumnFrom celebrated author Ali Smith comes the first in a proposed  “seasonal quartet”—four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons, after all, are)–that will consider what it means to live in a specific time and place, as well as what it means to live at all.  At the heart of this story is the relationship between Daniel, a 100-year-old man, and his neighbor Elizabeth, born in 1984.  We see these two together at different stages of Elizabeth’s life, from her childhood to the present day, and, through them, get a look at the world that is forming around them, and shaping their everyday existence.  Smith dived headfirst into the anguish, turmoil, and anger that is fueling our world today, and uses her characters as a lens through which to mourn, to contemplate, and, perhaps, to offer a little bit of hope for an honest human connection in the midst of….all of this.  It’s not an easy book to explain, but it’s an enormously significant one, and a gutsy move from an author who has never been afraid to push the proverbial envelope.  This book, which is being hailed as the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel to engage with the Brexit debate, is making waves on both sides of the pond, with The Guardian calling it a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams, and transient realities; the ‘endless sad fragility’ of mortal lives.”

Dust Bowl GirlsAt the height of the Great Depression, with dust storms ravaging the mid-west, and financial hardship touching–or ruining–over a third of the US population, Sam Babb, the charismatic basketball coach of tiny Oklahoma Presbyterian College, began dreaming.  He traveled from farm to farm across hundreds of miles, offering young women a free college education if they would play for his newly-formed basketball team, the Cardinals.  While these women were remarkable simply for taking the risk of leaving their home and pursuing a dream that would daunt many, they also accomplished something remarkable as a deeply-devoted team: they won every game they played.  In this beautifully-told and thoroughly-researched history, Sam Babb’s granddaughter, Lydia Ellen Reeder tells about the Cardinals, their rise to athletic dominance, and their showdown with the reigning champions of basketball (a team led by none other than Babe Didrikson).  Though a story, ultimately, of triumph, she also discusses the intense scrutiny, suspicion, and condemnation to which these women were subjected, and the prevailing myths and lies that they also defeated in the course of their remarkable athletic careers. Library Journal gave this book a big nod, noting that it is “Equal parts social history and sports legend come to life . . . Of special interest for students of women’s studies and a strong contender for a film adaptation. With high appeal to sports fans and historians, this hidden gem of a story deserves a place in all public library collections.”

Civil WarsA History in Ideas: “Civil War” is a concept that, I would argue, most of us think we understand.  But in this fascinating little tome, historian David Armitage walks his audience through the many, many forms that civil wars can take, and just what the consequences are for labeling a conflict as such–for example, the potential for any other powers engaging, profiting from, or controlling the outcome of one.  From the American Revolution to the current-day way in Iraq, and journeying via philosophy, economics, biography, and history, Armitage’s book considers wars on the ground, as well as the theory of war itself, arguing that, no matter how many times we try to end wars, violence seems to be an inherent part of the nation-state system, and our best defense is to understand how and why specific forms of violence occur.  Publisher’s Weekly gave this book a starred review, and called this work “Learned…Indispensable…a model of its kind: concise, winningly written, clearly laid out, trenchantly argued…His conclusion is sobering: human societies may never be without this kind of conflict, and we’re better off trying to understand it than ignoring its problematic nature. It’s hard to imagine a more timely work for today.”

The Evening Road: Another historical fiction piece set in a small town, and another that is receiving critical acclaim from a number of outlets.  At its heart is Ottie Lee Henshaw and Calla Destry, two determined women whose lives have been shaped by prejudice and violence, who meet by chance one dark day in the 1920’s.  Ottie Lee, her husband, and her lecherous boss are traveling to a planned lynching, and pick up Calla, who has been waiting for a meeting that never happened.  Though infused with violence, bigotry, and sheer human horror, the real power of this novel comes from the tiny moments of intimacy–shared, appreciated, or otherwise–that define these relationships, and the depth of character with which Laird Hunt infuses each of his characters.  This is a challenging read, not only because of its structure, but because of the realities it forces readers to face, but for those very same reasons, it’s an important one, and most definitely one that will linger for long after it’s been finished.  Kirkus Reviews agrees, saying in their starred review “Hunt finds history or the big events useful framing devices, but he is more interested in how words can do justice to single players and life’s fraught moments. Hunt brings to mind Flannery O’Connor’s grotesques and Barry Hannah’s bracingly inventive prose and cranks. He is strange, challenging, and a joy to read.”

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free-For-All birthday celebration to Ann M. Martin, author of The Baby-Sitters Club series!

Ann Matthews Martin was born on this day in 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey.  Her father, Henry Martin, was a respected cartoonist whose works appeared in The New Yorker, Ladies’ Home Journal, Punch, and others (you can see a collection of his work by clicking this link.  Mr. Martin donated all his New Yorker cartoons to Princeton University’s Library, which gets him lots of brownie points in our books!).  He also illustrated one of Ann’s books, Baby-sitters Super Special #6: New York, New York!

For more illustrations, see: https://www.scholastic.com/annmartin/letters/2014-02.htm
For more illustrations, see: https://www.scholastic.com/annmartin/letters/2014-02.htm

Ann Martin graduated from Smith College and began her career as a teacher before moving into publishing, where she worked as an editor for children’s books.  Her first book, Bummer Summer was published in 1983.

In 1986, she was approached by Jean Feiwel of Scholastic, who had seen the success of a book called Ginny’s Babysitting Job, and realized there might be a market for similar books, aimed at girls between the ages of 8 to 12.  Martin agreed to write a four book series, beginning with Kristy’s Great Idea, in which enterprising 13-year-old Kristy Thomas gathers her three friends together to start a club-slash-babysitting-business.  The books did fairly well, leading Scholastic to order two more titles.  And then twelve more titles.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

1621292The Baby-Sitters’ Club (or BSC, as we Children of the 90’s knew it) sold over 176 million books between that first book in 1986 and when the series ended in 2000.  It also spawned multiple spin-off series, which featured the members of the Baby-Sitters’ Club itself (which grew to ten members in total), as well as their friends and siblings.  There was also a TV show, which aired on HBO and Nickelodeon, as well as  a film.  The series got so big, in fact, that Scholastic had to hire ghostwriters for the series to keep fans happy.  Though Martin estimates that she wrote between 60 and 80 of the books herself, a number of authors, both known and unknown, have been a part of The Baby-Sitters’ Club at one time or another.

One of my own favorite memories of attending Smith was when Ann M. Martin came to speak at Neilson Library.   As an ardent BSC fan (I wrote Ann M. Martin a fan letter in 1993), I was determined to meet the woman who had shaped so much of my reading experiences through grade school, so I got there an hour early.  The room was already full.  I was lucky enough to get a seat on the window sill, and proceeded to haul late-comers in through said window so that they could hear the talk, as well.  The Fire Marshall wasn’t best pleased with us, but I don’t think there is any greater testament to the power of books to unite readers of all ages, than that night.

So a very happy birthday to Ann M. Martin.  And behalf of all of us: Thank you!

And now, on to some other books that may just change your life, too!


3739644To the Bright Edge of the World:  Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, so expectations were quite high for this, her second release.  So far, it seems that it has more than lived up to those expectations.  Set during the winter of 1885, the book tells the tale of Colonel Allen Forrester, a decorated war hero, who leaves his newly pregnant wife Sophie, to accomplish the impossible–to cross the Wolverine River and explore the wilds of Alaska Territory.  He pledges to keep a diary of his trip, to leave some record behind for Sophie, in case he doesn’t make it back.  Meanwhile, Sophie herself finds herself tested in ways she never dreamed, and begins to discover the science and art of photography as a way to express herself and claim her place in it.  The record that these two remarkable people leave behind is one that readers are adoring, and that Publisher’s Weekly called “An entrancing, occasionally chilling, depiction of turn-of-the-century Alaska…In this splendid adventure novel, Ivey captures Alaska’s beauty and brutality, not just preserving history, but keeping it alive.”

3781231Red Right Hand: Levi Black’s debut novel is a little bit horror and a little bit urban fantasy, with a dash of Lovecraft, and a whole lot of imagination, and has the makings of a sensational series.  His heroine is Charlie Tristan Moore, a woman who has survived plenty already in life, but nothing can prepare her for the night when she is ambushed by three skin hounds, and rescued by a Man in Black, with a long, dark coat (which I want, very badly), and a fearsome secret: he is an Elder God, and requires Charlie’s services as his Acolyte, using the dark magic she never knew she had, in order to destroy his fellow Elder Gods.  And he’s taking her best friend Daniel as collateral.  Charlie is told that humanity hangs in the balance–but is she really serving its savior, or its destroyer?  Library Journal says of this series opener: “Fans of dark fantasy and horror in full and gory detail will be entranced by this debut novel.”

3776221These Honored DeadAbraham Lincoln–he was the 16th president, he was a vampire hunter, and now, in Jonathan Putnam’s new mystery, he’s fighting crime on the American frontier!  Apparently inspired by true events, this book centers around young Joshua Speed, the second-son of a plantation owner, who is determined to make his own way in the world.  But when an orphaned girl is found murdered, Joshua is determined to see justice done…and who better to help him than his new friend, and newly-minted lawyer, Abraham Lincoln?  Speed was indeed a real person and a lifelong friend of Lincoln’s, and his brother served as the US Attorney General in 1864, and in bringing him, and Lincoln, to life in this book, Putnam is drawing comparison’s to Caleb Carr’s classic historical mystery The Alienist–high praise indeed!  Library Journal agrees, calling this book a “well-researched debut mystery… Eye-opening historical details on hunting runaway slaves and 19th-century poorhouses will interest readers who enjoy works by Caleb Carr and E.L. Doctorow.”

3779015Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets: Speaking of comparisons, journalist Luke Dittrich’s debut non-fiction book has been drawing comparisons to Oliver Sack and Stephen King, two names that will always grab my attention.  In 1953, a 27-year-old man named Henry Molaison–a factory worker, and severe epileptic–received a radical new form of lobotomy that was intended to eliminate his seizures.  The surgery was a failure, and left Henry unable to produce any long-term memories.  For the next sixty years, Henry became a kind of human science experiement, as doctors used his unique condition to study the brain, how it works, and how it remembers.  Luke Dittrich’s grandfather was the man who performed Henry’s lobotomy, and his book is not just about the two men, but the medical system that brought them together, and a contemplation of the brain and the mind, and what it really means to be human.  Chilling and fascinating by turns, this book is being hailed as a triumph from all corners, with Kirkus Reviews declaring, “Oliver Sacks meets Stephen King in a piercing study of one of psychiatric medicine’s darker hours. . . . A mesmerizing, maddening story and a model of journalistic investigation.”

3779009Adnan’s Story: Fans of NPR’s phenomenally successful Serial heard about  Adnan Syed, who was convicted and sentenced to life plus thirty years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, a high school senior in Baltimore, Maryland.  Adnan maintained his innocence throughout his trial and imprisonment, and Rabia Chaudry, a family friend, contacted produced Sarah Koenig at NPR, hoping she could shed light on the case.  The result was a Peabody Award-winning podcast that attracted over 500,000 listeners.  Not only does Chaudry’s book detail Adnan’s life story, his experiences in prison, and the recording of Serial, but claims to have new evidence that will thoroughly defeat the case against Adnan.  Fans of Serial and newcomers to the story will find plenty to enjoy here, and, as the Los Angeles Times notes, “It was easy to forget, listening to ‘Serial,’ that it was a true story about real people. Adnan’s Story adds context and humanizes it in a way that could change how you think about the case, and about ‘Serial’ itself.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy birthday to S.E. Hinton, author of that perennial classic, The Outsiders!


Susan Eloise Hinton was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on this date in 1948.  She was always a reader, but was never satisfied with the books she was given to read in school–and quickly set about changing that.  While attending Will Rogers High School (also in Tulsa), she began to observe the two rival “gangs” (groups or cliques might be closer to the mark here) that had established themselves in the school–the Greasers and the Socs.  Both gangs were very much products of their time, defined by their looks and their class.  The HEADER-P7“Greaser” subculture tended to be ‘working class’ young men who posited themselves against a number of traditional societal norms; they reveled in their isolation and individuality, they smoked, they cursed, they loved rock ‘n roll, they formed some of the first motorcycle gangs, and they tended to grease their hair back (à la James Dean), which was how their name was developed–check out the picture on the left for great example.  Though this was primarily a men’s thing, women were allowed to become ‘Greasers’ by the 1950’s.  The Socs, on the other hand, tended to be upper class young men, the children of the elite and the powerful who knew from a very young age that they, too, would grow up to assume those mantles of power.

2282039Society, as a whole, tended to favor the ‘Socs’, because they embodied all that society told people they should want to be–rich, beautiful, powerful, and confident.   But Hinton decided to write a book that was sympathetic to the Greasers–not only to explore the stereotypes surrounding them, but to explain what it was like to be an outsider in a society that condemned without understanding.  She completed the book in 1965 (at the age of 17), and it was published by Viking Press in 1967, when she was a freshman at the University of Tulsa.  Hinton used her initials when publishing as a way to ensure that book reviewers (who, at the time, were nearly exclusively male), would not dismiss the book because of the author’s gender.   The idea was a successful one, in the end.  The Outsiders was an immediate hit, and, to date, has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide.

So we would like to take a moment to thank S.E. Hinton, not only for giving us a book that was a pleasure to read in middle school (and, I can speak from experience, there aren’t many about which I can say that), and for reminding us that everyone deserves sympathy and a voice.

….And, speaking of books….let’s take a look at a few that have sprung up onto our shelves this week!

Five Books

3737618Underground AirlinesBen H. Winters’ book has been making a splash lately, with a number of references in “Best Of” and “Must Read” lists, not in science fiction, but outside the genre, as well.  In Winters’ book, America looks pretty familiar–technology is the same, capitalism rules…the only difference is that the Civil War never happened.  In this America, slavery still exists in four states, and a talented young Black man named Victor is hard at work as a bounty hunter.  Victor’s latest assignment takes him to Indianapolis, where he must attempt to infiltrate an abolitionist group known as the Underground Airlines.  Though he’s always considered himself a good man with bad employers, as he interacts with the people of the Undergroun Airlines, Victor begins to question everything he thought he knew about himself, and about freedom in general.  Christian Science Monitor raved about this book, and the richness of its layers, calling it “a masterful work of art with a gripping mystery at its most basic level. It’s also a complex allegory woven throughout with sparking rich dialogue and multiple shades of awareness. Passengers, fasten your seat belts. The ride may be turbulent, but that’s what makes it great.”

3756073A Green and Ancient Light: Frederic S. Durbin’s haunting novel also features a world very similar–and yet uniquely different from–our own, but this tale is set during the Second World War, when a young boy is sent away from the terrors of the Blitz to live with his grandmother in a rural fishing village.  There is little escape from war, however, and a downed enemy plane in their village immediately shatters the peace of the village.  Then  Mr. Girandole, grandmother’s friend arrives, with tales of fairies and magic.  But it with the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house that these erstwhile allies truly begin to find their purpose together, and a world that offers an escape from the brutality around them.  Durbin’s book has drawn comparisons to Neil Gaiman (high praise indeed!), and Booklist drew another admirable comparison of it, saying “Durbin’s gorgeously atmospheric novel solidly shares the fantasy-and historical-fiction genres…a delicate dance between reality and fantasy, ominous soldiers and late-night fairy music. Fans of John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things will enjoy this bittersweet fantasy with a mystery at its core.

3762216The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: Everyone I know went through a ‘dinosaur phase’ growing up.  I know first grade, for me, passed in a blur of brontasauri and raptors…and it seems that some people’s obsessions really can last a lifetime.  David W.E. Hone has made quite a career for himself as “the face of dinosaur research”, and in  this book, he brings us face to face with the T-Rex, defender of Jurassic Park, and the Big Scary Lizard of every little kid’s imagination.  This book is part history, discussing the first discovery of the T-Rex in the 1880’s, and part science, explaining the evolution of the dinosaur itself, as well as the field of paleontology that gets to study them.  And if that description doesn’t have you jumping up and down by now, I don’t know what to say.  Except, perhaps to relate this review from Publisher’s Weekly, which cheers, “Hone…lets his dinosaur-obsessed inner child run wild in this well-organized, up-to-date fact book about Tyrannosaurus rex and its 25 or so near relatives… Hone provides a solid meal to feed the popular fascination with these tyrant lizards, easily digestible but made from ingredients that, at least in paleontological terms, are quite fresh.”

3717689The Curse of the Tenth Grave:  Fans of Darynda Jones’ fiesty, no-nonsense PI (and grim reaper) Charley Davidson will be delighted with this tenth series’ installment, which finds Charley as busy as ever.  You’d think that helping a desperate homeless girl, saving an innocent man from a murder charge, and locating a pendant that has the entire supernatural community in a panic would be enough work for one day, but Charley is facing an ever greater threat here: three gods have arrived on earth with the express purpose of killing her daughter.  And there is nothing Charley won’t do to protect her family, no matter how long the odds might seem.  This series has consistently received rave reviews from critics and readers alike, and many fans have been expressing delight that Charley seems to be back on track at last, sorting out her issues and dealing with all the drama from previous books, making this a stand-out part of the series, and causing RT Book Reviews to rave, “Jones’ gift for storytelling shines through as she manages to keep the apocalyptic story-lines packed with enough humor and weirdness to make them flat-out fun!”

3762163Champagne, Uncorked: Alan Tardi spent a year at the world-renown (and apparently quite secretive) Krug winery in Reims, and his book tells the tale of the creation of the illlustrious Krug Grande Cuvée (the champagne of champagnes, we are told).  In it, we not only get the tale of Krug, but of champagne itself–it’s creation, it’s cultural significance–apparently we have Napoleon Bonaparte to thank for making it the drink of all good toasts–and the hardships that vinters and wine-makers endure in order to produce it.  The result is a fascinating, well-researched, and easily-disestible book that seeks to understand the real essence of champagne, and will certainly make your own toastable moments that much more memorable.  Newsday agrees, saying the book “Sparkles with information about the beverage of celebration and specifically the making of Krug Grande Cuvee, a great Champagne from arguably the greatest producer. History, harvesting, tasting, blending, marketing, presented with easy going style. You’ll want to make a pilgrimage to Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!