Tag Archives: Author Days

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!

Happy Birthday, Hunter S. Thompson!

Today, the Free For All is celebrating the birthday of American author, and indisputable Interesting Personality, Hunter S. Thompson!

Truth be told, I will get behind just about anyone who wants to celebrate library cards.

Thompson was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on this day in 1937.  He was the eldest of three sons, born to Jack Robert Thompson, a First World War veteran and subsequently an insurance adjuster, and Virginia Ray Davidson, who was the head librarian at the Louisville Public Library.   The young Thompson enjoyed writing from an early age, but his budding career, such as it was, was cut short when his father died, leaving the family in poverty.  Thompson himself was unable to finish high school because he was arrested for abetting a robbery, and sentenced to sixty days in prison.  After his release, he joined the Air Force, serving until 1957, when he was honorably discharged as an Airman First Class.  His commanding officer wrote about him, “In summary, this airman, although talented, will not be guided by policy”.

6a012875949499970c0120a6930964970bThompson had practiced his writing throughout his military career, working as a sports editor in the local papers where he was stationed.  Following his discharge, he became a full-time journalist, and it wasn’t long before he began establishing a name for himself.  His first book, a history of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (though the club itself doesn’t use an apostrophe in its name, Thompson’s book rendered it “Hell’s Angels”, and thus it has been published since then).  Thompson spent more than a year traveling with the Hells Angels, and initially got along well with them, until they began to suspect that he was exploiting the club for personal gain.  Following a savage beating by the club, Thompson moved to Colorado, and began working on more mainstream pieces–that is to say, he began focusing on mainstream politics, the counterculture (and backlash against said counterculture) of the 1960’s, the Vietnam War, and the 1968 Democratic Convention, but did so in a way that was uniquely, fascinatingly his own.

1738122 (1)In 1970, Thompson heard of the murder of Mexican-American television journalist Rubén Salazar, who had been shot in the head at with a tear gas canister as officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department moved against a Vietnam War protest known as the National Chicano Moratorium March.   Eager to discuss the growing racial tensions in the United Stated, but unable to place his idea into words, Thompson instead accepted a job from Sports Illustrated that would allow him to travel to California for himself and see the places he wanted to describe.  He was supposed to write a 250-word description of a local motorcycle race.  Fired by his trip, by the people he met, and the things he saw, Thompson instead submitted a 25,000 word manuscript that would become the basis for his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  

acosta3Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a Roman à clef, which means “novel in a key” in French.  The term was coined by a woman named Madeleine de Scudery in 17th century France, who wanted to write about her opinions about her own society friends and local politicians, but didn’t want to get dragged into courts for libel, so she changed their named to something colorful and descriptive, and used the veneer of fiction to tell the absolute truth.  Thompson’s work, essentially does the same with 1970’s America.  His two main characters are named Raoul Duke (meant to be Thompson himself) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (who was really Thompson’s traveling companion Oscar Zeta Acosta, pictured at left with Thompson).  The book itself talks about their drug-filled and alcohol-soaked journey to California, but the line between fact and fiction is constantly blurred, as Thompson relates their drug-addled hallucinations as reality, and makes it nearly impossible tell the difference between the world in his characters’ heads and that going on outside it.  What is evident throughout is their mutual belief in the destruction of the American dream, and of the counter-culture of the 1960’s, which was supposed to restore some ‘goodness’ to American (and world) society.  In Thompson’s view, both dreams had ended up devouring themselves, leaving nothing by moral destitution, corruption, and disillusionment in their wake.  To quote from Fear and Loathing: 

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of…no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Though there were plenty of critics who opposed to rampant drug use in the book, it was generally clear from the beginning that it was destined to become an American classic that, in its own, very unique way, managed to capture what was best and worst in America without flinching.

2633174Thompson was also responsible for creating “Gonzo Journalism”, a type of reporting that was very similar in style to Fear and Loathing–that is, it blended fiction and non-fiction without clear delineation, but did so in order to tell the most truth in a way that he felt traditional journalism couldn’t.  Thompson would use the style to describe any number of major events in American history, typically surrounding politics.  He was sent to cover what appeared to be the end of the Vietnam War, but arrived in Saigon hours before the fall of that city, to discover that Rolling Stone had cancelled his assignment, leaving him in one of the most chaotic and dangerous cities in the world without money or health insurance.  Though Thompson managed to get home, his relationship with the magazine that had been his primary outlet was forever soured.

2139568Though Thompson’s production after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wasn’t prolific, he would publish another book entitled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, documenting Nixon’s rise to the presidency, and several longer works on politics, culminating with  Better than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, documenting his experiencing during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential race.  His final book was The Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century, a vitriolic condemnation of America at the turn of the new century, and, particularly reflecting Thompson’s cynicism over the world since the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Though he continued to write sports pieces for ESPN magazine up until his death, Thompson’s health was suffering, and he was growing increasingly despondent over his own decline.  He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home on February 20, 2005 at the age of 67.  At his funeral, apparently according to his own wishes, his ashes were fired out of a cannon and accompanied by red, white, blue and green fireworks, set the the music of of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”.  

So, happy birthday, Hunter S. Thompson.  In honor of this American original, feel free to come into the library and check out his work for yourself!  We’ll leave you with a quote from his Gonzo work, The Proud Highway:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Happy Birthday, Pushkin!

Today, the Free For All celebrates the birthday of the Shakespeare of Russian Literature, would-be revolutionary, and all-round romantic, Alexander Pushkin!

Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky, 1821
Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky, 1821

Pushkin was born on this day in Moscow, 1799.  His parents were part of the extensive Russian nobility, but his great-grandfather was Abram Gannibal, a slave who had been brought to Russia from what is now Cameroon, and had been freed by Peter the Great, and who had grown up within the Tsar’s household.  Pushkin would attribute not only his love of freedom to his great-grandfather, but also his dark, curly hair.

images (6)From a young age, Pushkin knew he wanted to be a poet, as well as a social reformer.  He was inspired by the Greek Revolution against the Ottoman Empire (the same revolution in which Byron died), and, though a civil servant, eagerly wrote and spoke out on the most radical of issues, including revolution, which quickly got him transferred to all the backwater areas of Russian government.  Though bored out of his wits by his work, and increasingly lonely without the balls and parties of Russian high society, these isolated posts gave Pushkin plenty of time to write, to join the Freemasons (in 1820), and to become good friends with the Decembrists (not the musical group…the revolutionary group that was plotting to overthrow the Tsar.

Pushkin never took part in the 1825 Decembrist Uprising (legend says as he was leaving to join them, a black cat crossed his path, and the highly superstitious Pushkin decided it was an omen and stayed home).  However, his comrades within the Decembrists kept handwritten copies of many of his political poems, and when they were arrested, Pushkin’s name was immediately linked to the group.  Though he was allowed to return to St. Petersburg after having a face-to-face meeting with Tsar Nicholas I, Pushkin was placed under police watch, was unable to travel, and could publish nothing without extensive police censorship for the next five years.

793b79fd97e82d59da838f70cb2e42a6Nevertheless, Pushkin’s star was on the rise.  His plays and poems were winning him fame across Russia, and his charming wit, ribald jokes, and shameless flirting made him the first person to be invited to any event in Russian society.  It was at one of these parties, in 1828, that Pushkin met Natalya Goncharova, then 16-years-old, and reportedly one of the most beautiful women in Moscow (one of Pushkin’s sketches of her is to the left).  He fell in love immediately (granted, he seemed to have done that fairly often), but it took a great deal to convince the very hesitant Natalya to marry him, in 1831.

Like all good 19th century artists, Pushkin was falling deeper and deeper into debt, and his frequent clashes with the Powers That Be made his life a bit of a topsy-turvy one.  He was willing to deal with it all with his customary charm, style, and bawdy good humor.  But the one thing he couldn’t tolerate was his wife’s unhappiness–even when it came as a result of a potential affair with another man.

Romantics say that there is no one more devoted than a reformed rake, and Pushkin is the man who proves that saying.  Though he called Natalya his “113th love”, and wasn’t above gently mocking her in his letters, she was his muse, and the person he held above all others.  “Without you,” he wrote Natalya, “I would have been unhappy all my life.”

Natalya Pushkina, 1849
Natalya Pushkina, 1849

So when Natalya’s heart was broken by Georges D’Anthes, her brother-in-law, and reportedly one of the best shots in the Russian Army, Pushkin very publicly challenged him to a duel.  D’Anthes fired first, hitting Pushkin in the abdomen.  Pushkin–who had already fought a few duels in his time–managed to get up and fire, but only lightly wounded D’Anthes in the shoulder.  Though honor may have been served, Pushkin’s wound was a fatal one, and he died after two days of agony.

Georges D'Anthes, and his amazing hair.
Georges D’Anthes, and his amazing hair.

Even in death, Pushkin proved to be a threat to the establishment–his funeral, and the public mourning over his death was so strong and widespread that the government feared widespread unrest, and abruptly moved his funeral into a smaller church in order to discourage the crowds.  It wasn’t until 1880 that a statue to the great man was unveiled in Moscow.

Today, though, we get to celebrate all of Pushkin’s genius, from his deeply romantic side, embodied in Eugene Onegin, perhaps the most famous poem in Russian literature, to his love for the dark, gothic, and mystical, to his prolific and utterly enchanting letters.  I, personally, cannot recommend Pushkin highly enough (I was a Russian major in college because I had…have…an enormous literary crush on the man), but there is plenty of pleasure to be found, even for the uninitiated.  Here are some super places to get started:

3486864Eugene Onegin:  I know I have brought up this book one too many times around here already, but seriously….it’s wonderful.  Onegin is a jaded, cynical, self-absorbed Byronic hero who wins the heart of Tatiana, an innocent, but fiercely independent and free-spirited young woman (Pushkin writes some darned good heroine, particularly considering the time period in which he was writing).  Their meeting becomes a catalyst for tragedy and self-revelation in rhyme that is so emotional and so smart and so moving that you’ll get swept away by it.  Also, thanks to a passage in this poem that gave rise to a long-standing rumor that Pushkin had a foot fetish.  You’ll have to read it to judge for yourself!

1968059Collected Stories: Pushkin was a gifted story-teller no matter the medium, and his short stories still have the power to captivate, to intrigue, and to scandalize to this day.  Some of these stories deal with elements of Russian folklore and mythology, some make fun of Russian society in Pushkin’s day, particularly the hypocrisy of the upper classes and government (and many of which still ring true today), and some are out-and-out, NSFW romps that gave a number of people in my Russian language classes fits of hysteria.  The really fascinating part is that even these ribald tales are so well-written and clever and funny that it’s impossible not to cherish them.