Tag Archives: Author Days

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All Birthday Wish to Japanese novelist and poet Natsume Sōseki!

Natsume was born in 1867 in Babashita, in the Edo region of Japan.  His birth was not planned, and, as the sixth child in the family, his arrival placed financial and social strains on his parents.  As a result, Natsume was adopted in 1868 by a childless couple who raised him until the age of nine, when the couple divorced.

Natsume dreamed of becoming a writer from an early age, but his family strongly disapproved of his choice, and he went to University with the intention of becoming an architect.  His writing dreams did not die, however, and Natsume not only developed his prose writing while at university, but also received tutoring in the art of composing haiku. From this point on, he began signing his poems with the name Sōseki, which is a Chinese idiom meaning “stubborn”. In 1890, he entered the English Literature department, quickly mastered the English language, and began working as a teacher.

In 1900, the Japanese government sent him to study in Great Britain as “Japan’s first Japanese English literary scholar”.  Natsume had a terrible time in London, and spent most days inside reading.  By the time he returned to Japan, it was with a renewed confidence in his English-language abilities, and even more insight to begin writing.  Sōseki’s literary career began in 1903, when he began to contribute haiku and other verses to literary magazine.  However, it was the public success of his satirical novel I Am a Cat in 1905 that won him wide public admiration, and he became a full-time writer soon after.  Sōseki is generally considered to be one of the most influential modern Japanese writers, writing one novel a year before his death from a stomach ulcer in 1916.  From 1984 until 2004, his portrait appeared on the front of the Japanese 1000 yen note.  Below are two of his haiku, traditional Japanese verses that consist of three lines of 5 syllables, 7 syllables, and 5 syllables:

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

Now gathering,
Now scattering,
Fireflies over the river.

And now, on to the books!

Red ClocksFans of Margaret Atwood, and the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace should definitely have Leni Zumas’ hugely anticipated and celebrated book on their radar.  Set in a future United States where abortion is totally illegal, this book focuses on five women in a small Oregon fishing town, who are all grappling with the new laws alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.  Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents and one of Ro’s best students, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling herbalist, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s arrested and put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.  This book has been getting rave reviews from critics and readers alike, and making a number of “Best Of” lists already.  The Chicago Tribune described the book as “indespensible”, and wrote in its review,  “Wry and urgent, defiant and stylish, Zumas’ braided tale follows the intertwined fates of four women whose lives this law irrevocably alters….Lit up with verbal pyrotechnics and built with an admirably balanced structure, Red Clocks is undeniably gorgeously written.”

The Weight of WordsThe artistry of  Graphic Artist, Illustrator, Filmmaker and Musician Dave McKean has permeated popular culture for more than thirty years. His images, at once bizarre, beautiful, and instantly recognizable, have graced an impressive array of books, CDs, graphic novels, and films. In this collection, ten contemporary storytellers, including Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale, and Caitlin R. Kiernan, as well as McKean himself, have created a series of varied, compelling narratives, each inspired by one of McKean’s extraordinary paintings. The result is a unique collaborative effort in which words and pictures enhance and illuminate each other on page after page.  This is one of those fascinating anthologies that really does offer something for everyone. Its complementary merger of words and images adds up to something special that will engage readers and artists alike.  Publisher’s Weekly gave this wonderful collection a starred review, noting that “even the least satisfying parts of this astonishing book are entirely readable, and the text plays beautifully against McKean’s gorgeously reproduced illustrations.”

The Girls in the PictureIn this sweeping and insightful historical novel, Melanie Benjamin has given us moving story of the friendship and creative partnership between two of Hollywood’s earliest female legends—screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford.  It is 1914, and twenty-five-year-old Frances Marion has left her (second) husband and her Northern California home for the lure of Los Angeles, where she is determined to live independently as an artist.  But Los Angeles is swiftly becoming the home of the “flickers,” moving pictures that bring stories to life.  In this fledgling industry, Frances finds her true calling: writing stories for this wondrous new medium. She also makes the acquaintance of actress Mary Pickford, whose signature golden curls and lively spirit have earned her the title “America’s Sweetheart.” The two ambitious young women hit it off instantly, their kinship fomented by their mutual fever to create, to move audiences to a frenzy, to start a revolution.  As these two friends navigate their way through an industry already prejudiced against them because of their gender, yet eager to cash in on their talent and glamour, both Mary and Frances will discover the cost–and rewards–of fame.  With cameos from such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Rudolph Valentino, and Lillian Gish, this is a book that will appeal to classic movie buffs as much as it will fans of historic fiction and women’s history.  NPR provided a glowing review of this book, saying “One of the pleasures of The Girls in the Picture its no-males-necessary alliance of two determined females—#TimesUp before its time. . . . Inspiration is a rare and unexpected gift in a book filled with the fluff of Hollywood, but Benjamin provides it…”

Jefferson’s Daughters: Three Sisters, White and Black, in a Young America: Thomas Jefferson had three daughters: Martha and Maria by his wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, and Harriet by his slave Sally Hemings.  In this groundbreaking history, Catherine Kerrison, a scholar of early American and women’s history, recounts the remarkable journey of these three women—and how their struggle to define themselves reflects both the possibilities and the limitations that resulted from the American Revolution.  Although the three women shared a father, the similarities end there. Martha and Maria received a fine convent school education while they lived with their father during his diplomatic posting in Paris.  Harriet Hemings followed a different path. She escaped slavery—apparently with the assistance of Jefferson himself. Leaving Monticello behind, she boarded a coach and set off for a decidedly uncertain future.  For this groundbreaking triple biography, Kerrison has uncovered never-before-published documents written by the Jefferson sisters when they were in their teens, as well as letters written by members of the Jefferson and Hemings families.  The eventful lives of Thomas Jefferson’s daughters provide a unique vantage point from which to examine the complicated patrimony of the American Revolution itself.  The richly interwoven story of these three strong women and their fight to shape their own destinies sheds new light on the ongoing movement toward human rights in America—and on the personal and political legacy of one of our most controversial “Founding Fathers”.  The USA Today wrote a beautiful review of this book, saying, in part, ” The most poignant literature gives a voice to the voiceless.  And. . . Catherine Kerrison tells us the stories of three of Thomas Jefferson’s children, who, due to their gender or race, lived lives whose most intimate details are lost to time. . . . A highlight of Kerrison’s work is that while noting the gender constraints that hemmed in white women, she does not sugarcoat their privileged status, nor deny their racism. . . . A historical narrative that allows us to reflect on the thoughts, fears and motivations of three women…[and] offers a fascinating glimpse of where we have been as a nation. It is a vivid reminder of both the ties that bind, and the artificial boundaries that painfully divide us.”

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America: On August 11, 2008, eighteen-year-old Marie reported that a masked man broke into her apartment near Seattle, Washington, and raped her. Within days police and even those closest to Marie became suspicious of her story. The police swiftly pivoted and began investigating Marie. Confronted with inconsistencies in her story and the doubts of others, Marie broke down and said her story was a lie—a bid for attention. Police charged Marie with false reporting, and she was branded a liar.  More than two years later, Colorado detective Stacy Galbraith was assigned to investigate a case of sexual assault. Describing the crime to her husband that night, Galbraith learned that the case bore an eerie resemblance to a rape that had taken place months earlier in a nearby town. She joined forces with the detective on that case, Edna Hendershot, and the two soon discovered they were dealing with a serial rapist: a man who photographed his victims, threatening to release the images online, and whose calculated steps to erase all physical evidence suggested he might be a soldier or a cop. Through meticulous police work the detectives would eventually connect the rapist to other attacks in Colorado—and beyond.  This book, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalists by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, is the story of that case and the hunt for justice, that confronts the disturbing truth of how sexual assault is investigated today—and the long history of skepticism toward rape victims.  Though unsettling, certainly upsetting, and by no means an easy read, this book is timely, informative, and deeply necessary for the way it shines a light not only on the prosecution of rape, but also how we as the general public consider these cases today.  Kirkus Reviews agreed, calling it “Chilling…The authors display meticulous investigative reporting skills… A riveting and disturbing true-crime story that reflects the enduring atrocity of rape in America.” 

Until next week, beloved patrons….Happy reading!

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1929 – 2018

“We’re each of us alone, to be sure. What can you do but hold your hand out in the dark?”

Today, we remember the life and work of Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away yesterday at the age of 88.

As The New York Times reports, she was born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California on Oct. 21, 1929, the youngest of four children and the only daughter of two anthropologists, Alfred L. Kroeber and Theodora Quinn Kroeber.   She grew up fascinated by mythology from around the world, and science fiction.  She turned away from science fiction, however, when she realized how many of the stories were about men as soldiers, adventurers, and plunderers.

She graduated first from Radcliffe College in 1951, and then from Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in romance literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  She traveled to Paris in a Fulbright fellowship, and there she met the man who would become her husband, another Fulbright scholar, Charles Le Guin, who survives her.  The two settled in Portland, Oregon, and Ursula remained at home to raise their children.  She wrote five unpublished novels before turning to genre fiction.  Science fiction, the genre she adored as a child.  But now, Le Guin began to reinvent the genre, using her works to question western conceptions of gender, race, and power.

A devoted feminist, Ursula K. Le Guin, along with writers like Octavia Butler, burst open the science fiction genre, showing its true power to help us reimagine and reshape our own world.  She will be missed.  But, lucky for us, her words, her humor, and her insight lives on—on our shelves, and in our hearts.

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free-For-All birthday to the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe!

Poe was born in Boston on this day in 1809, the child of two fairly prominent actors.  His father abandoned the family in 1810, leaving Eliza Arnold Poe, a skilled and well-known actress, to raise three children alone.  She passed away at the age of twenty-four of what is assumed to be tuberculosis, when Poe was three.  The three children were sent to different families to live: William Henry Leonard Poe lived with his paternal grandparents in Baltimore, Edgar Poe was taken in by (but never formally adopted by) John and Frances Allan in Richmond, and Rosalie Poe was adopted by William and Jane Scott Mackenzie in Richmond, Virginia.

Edgar lived with the Allan family until his late teens, though he clashed with John Allan frequently over money matters.  He tried enlisting in the military, and tried college, attending the University of Virginia for a year before leaving (due to lack of funds rather than a lack of intellect or ambition).  Falling back on his own resources, Poe began to earn a living through writing, for working for literary journals and periodicals, mostly as a literary critic.  Though he developed a name for himself (as a ruthless, curmudgeonly critic who may not have been nice, but was always cynically funny in his reviews), it was the publication of his poem The Raven in 1845 that cemented his reputation.   He married Virginia Clemm (pictured at left), his 13-year-old cousin in 1836 (when he was twenty six).  Biographers disagree as to the nature of the couple’s relationship. Though their marriage was loving, some biographers suggest they viewed one another more like a brother and sister, but I think it’s very fair to say that this is not a historical issue that can be conveniently swept away and forgotten.  Poe’s involvement in several scandals of a romantic nature hurt Virginia extremely, and she passed away in 1847 (also of tuberculosis) blaming the scandals for her poor health.  Poe himself was devastated over the loss of his wife, and turned to alcohol to cope with his grief.  He managed to battle back against his addictions, continue writing and working, but was found severely ill and delirious in Baltimore in 1849, wearing someone else’s clothing.  Though medical treatment was provided for him, he passed away on October 7, 1849.  Scholars have suggested a cause of death ranging from alcoholism to rabies, but the real cause will most likely remain a mystery.

To read some of Poe’s lyrical and deeply emotional poetry, click here.  Additionally, you can come into the Library and check out his stories, which form the basis of the American Gothic literary tradition–and are darned good reads, even today!

And speaking of darned good reads, here are a few of the new books that skipped up onto our shelves this week, and are eager to improve your weekend!

Pale Rider: Laura Spinney’s newest book is being called a definitive account of the Spanish Flu Epidemic that spread across the globe from 1918 to 1920, and resulted in between 50 and 100 million deaths.  The circumstances of the epidemic, and the cultural responses to it, have gone massively understudied in history (overshadowed by the First World War and subsequently international political events).  But Spinney shows here that the Spanish Flu did indeed change the world, leading to massive breakthroughs in medicine and epidemiology, changing the role of doctors, nurses, and care-givers around the world, and left a cultural mark that still resonates with us today.  Spinney is also a gifted writer, telling her story with gripping suspense, power, and humanity, driving home the cataclysm of this epidemic and the strength of the people who endured it.  The book has been at the top of a number of “Best Of” lists, and has earned rave reviews around the world, with The Times noting, “I’ve seldom had so much fun reading about people dying. Laura Spinney, a science journalist, is adept at explaining arcane scientific research in an entertaining, comprehensible way. …With superb investigative skill and a delightfully light-hearted writing style, Spinney extends her analysis far beyond the relatively short duration of the plague….Spinney finds it odd that we know so little about the worst calamity to affect the human race. So do I. There are tens of thousands of books about the First World War, yet that flu is, arguable, more relevant to our world. While global war is, we hope, a thing of the past, global pestilence hovers like a vulture.”

The Night Market: Much like Poe himself, Jonathan Moore possess a unique talent for the dark, the twisted, and the macabre.  This newest of his mysteries is a gripping and twisted tale that is gruesome and delightfully clever.  t’s late Thursday night, and Inspector Ross Carver is at a crime scene in one of the city’s last luxury homes. The dead man on the floor is covered by an unknown substance that’s eating through his skin. Before Carver can identify it, six FBI agents burst in and remove him from the premises. He’s pushed into a disinfectant trailer, forced to drink a liquid that sends him into seizures, and then is shocked unconscious.  On Sunday he wakes in his bed to find his neighbor, Mia—who he’s barely ever spoken to—reading aloud to him. He can’t remember the crime scene or how he got home; he has no idea two days have passed. Mia says she saw him being carried into their building by plainclothes police officers, who told her he’d been poisoned. Carver doesn’t really know this woman and has no way of disproving her, but his gut says to keep her close.  In a fast-paced story that will keep fans of Blake Crouch and Lauren Beukes delighted, Moore unfolding a mid-bending, Twilight Zone-esque story that earned a starred review from Kirkus, who described it as “A sharp and scary near-future thriller that delivers a dark message about society’s love affair with technology…Unsettling, stylish noir…[The] utterly shocking revelations in the third act are the stuff of nightmares. You’ll never look at a flock of sparrows the same way again.”

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on UkraineAnne Applebaum won a Pulitzer Prize for her history of Stalin’s gulags, and she turns that same sharp historic eye and extraordinary research skills to one of the world’s worst man-made famines.  In 1929 Stalin launched his policy of agricultural collectivization—in effect a second Russian revolution—which forced millions of peasants off their land and onto collective farms. The result was a catastrophic famine, the most lethal in European history. At least five million people died between 1931 and 1933 in the USSR. But instead of sending relief the Soviet state made use of the catastrophe to rid itself of a political problem. Anne Applebaum argues that more than three million of those dead were Ukrainians who perished not because they were accidental victims of a bad policy but because the state deliberately set out to kill them.  Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses. In some cases, they killed one another for food. Harrowing, horrifying, and absolutely necessary, this book is a landmark in Soviet history, and also a deeply personal, moving story about the ability of humans to endure.  The Washington Post hailed it as a book sure to become “the standard treatment of one of history’s great political atrocities . . . She re-creates a pastoral world so we can view its destruction. And she rightly insists that the deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian peasants was part of a larger [Soviet] policy against the Ukrainian nation . . .  To be sure, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Russians of today can decide whether they wish to accept a Stalinist version of the past. But to have that choice, they need a sense of the history. This is one more reason to be grateful for this remarkable book.”

A Hundred Small LessonsA moving, evocative tale that spans generations, Ashley Hay’s newest novel focuses on the power of women, family, and love, to overcome the most profound of obstacles.  When Elsie Gormley leaves the Brisbane house in which she has lived for more than sixty years, Lucy Kiss and her family move in, eager to establish their new life. As they settle in, Lucy and her husband Ben struggle to navigate their transformation from adventurous lovers to new parents, taking comfort in memories of their vibrant past as they begin to unearth who their future selves might be. But the house has secrets of its own, and the rooms seem to share recollections of Elsie’s life with Lucy.  In her nearby nursing home, Elsie traces the span of her life—the moments she can’t bear to let go and the places to which she dreams of returning. Her beloved former house is at the heart of her memories of marriage, motherhood, love, and death, and the boundary between present and past becomes increasingly porous for both her and Lucy.  RT Book Reviews loved this book, saying “Hay truly encapsulates how our lives are interwoven. We are sent on a journey through the decades as small events and echoes of memories overlap, intersect and suddenly converge into a beautiful portrait spanning the past, present and future. Every word has a purpose and resonates…Readers will fall in love with the vivid landscapes of Brisbane and the impeccable, lyrical language that seeps from the pages.”

Woman at 1,000 Degrees: Literature has really been giving the elderly and the long-lived their due lately, and this story by Icelandic novelist Hallgrímur Helgason, gives us the newest of our aged heroine, Herra Björnsson. Herra,  has two weeks left, maybe three—she has booked her cremation appointment, at a crispy 1,000 degrees, so it won’t be long. But until then she has her cigarettes, a World War II–era weapon, some Facebook friends, and her memories to sustain her.  And what a life this remarkable eighty-year-old narrator has led, from her childhood in the remote islands of Iceland, where she was born the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president, to teen years spent living by her wits alone in war-torn Europe, to love affairs on several continents, Herra Björnsson wed and lost husbands, had children, fled a war, kissed a Beatle, weathered the Icelandic financial crash, and mastered the Internet. She has experienced luck and betrayal and upheaval and pain, and—with a bawdy, uncompromising spirit—she has survived it all.  A poignant, uproarious, and utterly memorable tale, Helgason’s novel earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who described it “Helgason’s sad and funny novel begins in 2009, as 80-year-old Herra Björnsson lies dying in a Reykjavík garage, still in possession of a live hand grenade from World War II . . . In her unsentimental, unsparing narrative, she offers insights into Icelandic culture and character, including a riff on reticence and a brief summary of Iceland’s financial meltdown. Like the Icelandic landscape, she can be both appealing and treacherous.”


Until next week, beloved patrons…..Happy Reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday today to  Charles Perrault, French author, and one of the founders of the fairy tale genre.

Perrault’s portrait, approximately 1671-2

If you’ve ever read Cinderella, Puss In Boots, or Little Red Riding Hood, you’re familiar with Perrault’s work.  Born on this day in 1628 to a wealthy family, he trained as a lawyer, and began his career in government service, where he took part in the creation of the Academy of Sciences as well as the restoration of the Academy of Painting.  His career was quite the successful one: he was able to get his brother employed as a designer on the Louvre Museum, he convinced King Louis XIV to include thirty-nine fountains each representing one of the fables of Aesop in the labyrinth of Versailles in the gardens of Versailles, and gained a reputation as a writer, as well.  However, after being forced into retirement and unable to find other long-term employment, Perrault decided to dedicate himself to his children, publishing stories that he told and collected for them.   In 1697 he published Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals(Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé), subtitled Tales of Mother Goose (Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye).  Mother Goose herself was not a real person, by the by, but instead was a kind of a wise woman of folklore who was known for dispensing homespun wisdom.  These tales which were all based on French popular tradition, became extremely popular in among Perrault’s former colleagues in the French court, and the book’s publication made him suddenly quite famous.  Although Perrault is often credited as the founder of the modern fairy tale genre, his writing was both informed and inspired by writers and storytellers like Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, who coined the phrase “fairy tale” and wrote tales as early as 1690.  

Although many of Perrault’s tales, like Cinderella and Puss In Boots remain generally the way he wrote them, a number of them were changed through re-telling.  For example, his Sleeping Beauty also exists as Little Briar Rose, which was a story collected by the Grimm Brothers a century later.  Additionally, his Little Red Riding Hood ended quite grimly, with Red getting eaten.  The story was meant as a warning for girls not only about the danger of the forest, but of the “wolves” (read: men) who might prey upon them as they attempted to make their way through that forest.   Though Charles Perrault died in Paris in 1703 at the age of 75, his stories live on today is countless adaptations, re-tellings, and in myriad versions through the years.

If you’d like to read more of Perrault’s stories, stop on by the Library!  Also, here are some of the new books that have wandered on to our shelves this week, and are eager to make your acquaintance:

The TransitionLuke Kennard’s first novel is a wickedly funny, elegant little dystopian novel that skewers everything from capitalism to dating with such skill and flair as to make even the darkest moments irresistible.  Set in Britain several years from now, the book focuses on Karl and Genevieve, a couple whose spending always seems greater than their earnings, and who are toeing the line of financial ruin.  When they trip over that line, however, Genevieve and Karl aren’t sent to prison, but to The Transition: a six‑month break from their normal lives, during which they will live with an older, more successful couple, and learn from them about all that boring adult stuff like financial planning , proper hygiene, and, with their help. save up enough money to buy a rabbit hutch on the bad side of town.  But even as Genevieve falls under the spell of The Transition, Karl can’t help but notice that somethings just don’t seem right.  Who left those scratched warnings on the bedpost, for example?  And what happens to those who are “B-streamed”?  And just what is going on in the basement?  Publisher’s Weekly loved this book enough to give it a starred (and boxed!) review, describing it as a “sharp, witty debut . . . Enlivened by crisp dialogue and Wildean epigrams… Kennard calibrates satire and sentiment, puncturing glib diagnoses of a generation’s shortcomings while producing a nuanced portrait of a marriage.”

The Widows of Malabar Hill: Inspired in part by Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female attorney, this is a beautifully written mystery that captures the multicultural  setting 1920’s Bombay beautifully, and gives readers a fantastic new feminist sleuth to follow.  Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes women’s legal rights especially important to her.  When she is appointed to execute the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows, Perveen notices something strange: all three of the wives have signed over their full inheritance to a charity, leaving them nothing on which to survive.  Are these secluded women being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian?  As Perveen tries to investigate, tensions escalate to murder. Now it is her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that no innocent women or children are in further danger.  Perveen’s first case has been hailed as a ‘best of’ by a number of literary magazines and websites, with Booklist giving it a starred review, and saying “In addition to getting an unusual perspective on women’s rights and relationships, readers are treated to a full view of historical downtown Bombay—the shops and offices, the docks and old fort, and the huge variety of conveyances, characters, and religions—in an unforgettable olio that provides the perfect backdrop to the plot and subplots. Each of the many characters is uniquely described, flaws and all, which is the key to understanding their surprising roles in the well-constructed puzzle.”

Beau Death:  Anyone whose read any of Peter Lovesey’s mysteries featuring Bath detective Peter Diamond will know that these books very seldom disappoint, and this new installment is a corking good historical mystery that will keep new and old fans alike riveted.  A wrecking crew is demolishing a row of townhouses in order to build a grocery store when they uncover a skeleton in one of the attics. The dead man is wearing authentic 1760s garb and on the floor next to it is a white tricorn hat—the ostentatious signature accessory of Beau Nash, one of Bath’s most famous historical men-about-town, a fashion icon and incurable rake who, some say, ended up in a pauper’s grave. Or did the Beau actually end up in a townhouse attic? The Beau Nash Society will be all in a tizzy when the truth is revealed to them.  Chief Inspector Peter Diamond, who has been assigned to identify the remains, begins to fantasize about turning Nash scholarship on its ear. But one of his constables is stubbornly insisting the corpse can’t be Nash’s—the non-believer threatens to spoil Diamond’s favorite theory, especially when he offers some pretty irrefutable evidence. Is Diamond on a historical goose chase? Should he actually be investigating a much more modern murder?  Lovesey’s sense of place and his ability to capture characters effortlessly make each of these mysteries a delight, and he gets to put his talents to extra-good use here, comparing present-day Bath with the hedonistic fun-fair of Beau Nash’s time.  Kirkus Reviews gave this case a starred review, delighting in the way “Lovesey moves from one dexterously nested puzzle to the next with all the confidence of a magician who knows the audience won’t see through his deceptions no matter how slowly he unveils them.”

RoomiesThere are very few sure bets in this world, but a book by the writing team known as Christina Lauren is definitely one of them.  This delightful, snarky, steamy marriage-of-convenience romance is a treat, and Lauren’s ability to create emotional honesty and chemistry between protagonists just can’t be beat.  For months Holland Bakker has invented excuses to descend into the subway station near her apartment, drawn to the captivating music performed by her street musician crush. Lacking the nerve to actually talk to the gorgeous stranger, fate steps in one night in the form of a drunken attacker. Calvin Mcloughlin rescues her, but quickly disappears when the police start asking questions.  Using the only resource she has to pay the brilliant musician back, Holland gets Calvin an audition with her uncle, Broadway’s hottest musical director. When the tryout goes better than even Holland could have imagined, Calvin is set for a great entry into Broadway—until it comes to light that he’s in the country illegally, his student visa having expired years ago.  Seeing that her uncle needs Calvin as much as Calvin needs him, Holland impulsively marries the Irishman, her infatuation a secret only to him.  As their relationship evolves, however, and Calvin becomes the darling of Broadway, will Holland and Calvin to realize that they both stopped pretending a long time ago?  Though the very real fears of immigration may be treated a bit lightly here, the heart of this story is the terrific relationship between Holland and Calvin, and the way it brings out the best in both of them.  Entertainment Weekly agrees, noting, “Lauren masters rom-com banter and plotting, while also reminding us that the best entries in the genre are all about recognizing our own value regardless of relationship status. One of our 10 best romances of 2017.”

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: The title of this book alone is enough to attract attention, but Dan Harris backs it up with some simple, straightforward reasons for and approaches to meditation, based on his own experiences.  After having a panic attack on air in 2004, Harris was eager for a way to reduce his anxiety and help him focus.  This book is the result of that search, and of Harris’ cross-country quest to tackle the myths, misconceptions, and self-deceptions that stop people from meditating.  Along with his friend,  teacher and “Meditation MacGyver” Jeff Warren, Harris rented a former rock band’s tour bus and journeyed across eighteen states, talking to scores of would-be meditators—including parents, military cadets, police officers, and even a few celebrities–collecting their reasons for not meditating, and offering science-based ‘life hacks’ to help readers overcome them.  This thoroughly unique, genre-defying book featuring Harris’ one-of-a-kind insightful, sarcastic, and highly readable narrative voice, as well as plenty of down-to-earth advice for anyone looking to make a small change for the better in the new year.  Publisher’s Weekly helpfully notes that “Meditation newbies will particularly benefit from the topics covered: how to find time, how to sit, how to overcome self-judgment, and other FAQs about the powerful, life-changing practice the authors strive to unpack and promote in this clever guide.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday to Anna Margaret Ross,  who is alleged by some to be the worst poet in the world.

Via http://www.culturenorthernireland.org

McKittrick was born on this day in 1860, in Drumaness, County Down,  Ireland, where her father was the principal of Drumaness High School.  She herself became a teacher, securing a position at a school in Larne, County Antrim.  During her first visit to Larne, she struck up a friendship with the station master, and they married in August, 1887.

It was Anna’s husband who financed the publication of her first novel,  Irene Iddesleigh, as a tenth anniversary present, launching her notorious, if not quite illustrious literary career.  She went on to write three novels and dozens of poems under the pen name Amanda McKittrick Ros.  In a biographical essay, McKittrick wrote She wrote: “My chief object of writing is and always has been, to write if possible in a strain all my own. This I find is why my writings are so much sought after.”  She also predicted that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years.”…Well, she was, but perhaps not in the way she might have wished.  Mark Twain read her novel, and called it “one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time.”  An 1898 review called it “the book of the century”. ..again, not in a complementary way.  But she very well may have had the last laugh–according to McKittrick, she earned enough money from her writing to build herself a house, which she named Iddesleigh.  

Ros believed that her critics lacked sufficient intellect to appreciate her talent, so we’ll let you read them for yourself and judge.  This is the opening sentence of her novel Delina Delaney:

Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?

If you’d like some more, McKittrick’s last novel, Helen Huddleson, features characters who are all all the named after fruits, including Lord Raspberry, Cherry Raspberry, Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant, the Earl of Grape, and Madame Pear. Of Pear, Ros wrote:

…she had a swell staff of sweet-faced helpers swathed in stratagem, whose members and garments glowed with the lust of the loose, sparkled with the tears of the tortured, shone with the sunlight of bribery, dangled with the diamonds of distrust, slashed with sapphires of scandals….

And finally, here is her poem about Westminster Abbey.  C.S. Lewis and his writing group, the Inkblots, used to have a competition to see who could get through McKittrick’s poetry without laughing.  See how you fare:

On Visiting Westminster Abbey

Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer,
Some of whom are turned to dust,
Every one bids lost to lust;
Royal flesh so tinged with ‘blue’
Undergoes the same as you.

Famous some were–yet they died;
Poets–Statesmen–Rogues beside,
Kings–Queens, all of them do rot,
What about them? Now–they’re not!

And now, on to our books, which are, we think it’s safe to say, of an entirely different class than Mrs. McKittrick’s…

No Time To SpareUrsula K. Le Guin has taken readers to imaginary worlds for decades, creating and re-creating the science fiction genre. Now she’s in the last great frontier of life, old age, and exploring new literary territory: the blog, a forum where her voice—sharp, witty, as compassionate as it is critical—shines. No Time to Spare collects the best of Ursula’s online writing, presenting perfectly crystallized dispatches on what matters to her now, her concerns with this world, and her unceasing wonder at it: “How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.”  This is a book that any reader, from sci-fi fans to literature devotees, will be able to adore.  Le Guin’s commentaries on life, feminism, race, and the world at large are precious and insightful and wonderfully accessible, even though they contain huge, big, beautiful ideas.  Critics are over the moon about this collection, with The New Republic noting that this book “feels like the surprising and satisfying culmination to a career in other literary forms…Even in the familiar relationship of an old woman and her cat, Le Guin finds an ambit for challenging moral insight and matter for an inquisitiveness that probes the deep time of evolution…Blogs may not be novels, but a blog by Le Guin is no ordinary blog, either. It is a comfort to know, as reality seems to grow more claustrophobic and inescapable, that she remains at her desk, busily subverting our world.”

Where the Wild Coffee GrowsCoffee is one of the largest and most valuable commodities in the world. This is the story of its origins, its history, and the threat to its future, as told by Jeff Koehler, who wrote the fascinating history of Darjeeling tea.  Deftly blending in the long, fascinating history of our favorite drink, award-winning author Jeff Koehler takes readers from the forests of Ethiopia on  the spectacular journey of its spread around the globe. With cafés on virtually every corner of every town in the world, coffee has never been so popular–nor tasted so good.  But diseases and climate change are battering production in Latin America, where 85 percent of Arabica grows. As the industry tries to safeguard the species’ future, breeders are returning to the original coffee forests, which are under threat and swiftly shrinking.  This book, at once a fascinating history and an environmental warning, will captivate foodies, armchair travelers, and science-minded readers alike.  In fact, the Smithsonian rated it as one of the ten best books about food in 2017, calling the book “A deep dive into the fascinating history of coffee that meanders from the once-isolated, deep forests of Ethiopia’s Kafa region to the warm embrace of your local bodega. Coffee’s path to world domination is anything but straightforward and this story might be unwieldy in the hands of a lesser talent, but Koehler is more than up to the task. A must-read for coffee enthusiasts.”

Bryant and May: Wild ChamberFans of Christopher Fowler’s delightful Peculiar Crimes Unit Mysteries–wait no longer!  Detectives Arthur Bryant and John May are back on the case in a wonderfully quirky locked-room mystery.  Helen Forester’s day starts like any other: Around seven in the morning, she takes her West Highland terrier for a walk in her street’s private garden. But by 7:20 she is dead, strangled yet peacefully laid out on the path, her dog nowhere to be found. The only other person in the locked space is the gardener, who finds the body and calls the police. He expects proper cops to arrive, but what he gets are Bryant, May, and the wily members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit.  Before the detectives can make any headway on the case, a second woman is discovered in a public park, murdered in nearly identical fashion. Bryant delves into the arcane history of London’s cherished green spaces, rife with class drama, violence, and illicit passions. But as a devious killer continues to strike, Bryant and May struggle to connect the clues, not quite seeing the forest for the trees, putting innocent lives, the fate of the city’s parks, and the very existence of the PCU in peril.  This series is a treat from start to finish, and if you haven’t started it yet, it’s definitely a recommendation, from us and from The Guardian, who gushed “[Fowler] takes delight in stuffing his books with esoteric facts; together with a cast of splendidly eccentric characters [and] corkscrew plots, wit, verve and some apposite social commentary, they make for unbeatable fun.”

Hiddensee: Gregory Maguire gives us another alternative version of the classic tales we’re grown up hearing–this time, the tale of the man who would become Dr. Drosselmeier, who crafts the Nutcracker in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story (that became Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet).  This is a story rooted in, and told like a Bavarian fairy tale, mixing stories about elfin folk and forest creatures with deep questions about death and life, disadvantage and power, and the hope that remains even when everything else seems destroyed.  It’s a wonder-full, intriguing tale, unlike others that Maguire has told, but still full of his trademark whimsy and insight, and earned a starred review from Kirkus, who described it as “A delightful, mystical, mythical confection by zeitgeist whisperer Maguire… A splendid revisitation of folklore that takes us to and from familiar cultural touchstones into realms to make Freud blanch. Wonderful.”

The Girl in the Tower: Katherine Arden continues her tale, rooted firmly in Russian folklore, but featuring a marvelous unique heroine, who grew up hearing the tales of her people and family.  Vasilisa’s gift for seeing what others do not won her the attention of Morozko—Frost, the winter demon from the stories—and together they saved her people from destruction. But Frost’s aid comes at a cost, and her people have condemned her as a witch.  Now Vasilisa faces an impossible choice. Driven from her home by frightened villagers, the only options left for her are marriage or the convent. She cannot bring herself to accept either fate and instead chooses adventure, dressing herself as a boy and setting off astride her magnificent stallion Solovey.  But when the Grand Prince of Moscow anoints her a hero for her exploits, Vasilisa realizes she cannot reveal to the court that she is a girl, for if her deception were discovered it would have terrible consequences for herself and her family.  This is a glorious fantasy/fairy tale, full of heart, hope, emotion, daring, action, and adventure that is winning rave reviews from readers and critics alike.  Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, cheering it as a “sensual, beautifully written, and emotionally stirring fantasy . . . Fairy tales don’t get better than this.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Happy Birthday, Fanny Kemble!

Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble was born on this day in London in 1809.  Her parents were both prominent stage actors, and Fanny’s early career on the stage met with acclaim, as well.   She earned acclaim for her 1829 performance as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, performed at the Covent Garden Theatre (which was owned by her father Charles).

She embarked on a tour of the United States, and, in the course of her travels, Fanny met and married Pierce Mease Butler, one of the largest slaveholders in the country.  Butler kept Fanny and their children in Philadelphia, making occasional visits to his Georgia plantation.  In 1838, Fanny managed to convince him to bring her with him on his trip.   Fanny kept a diary throughout her visit, and was not at all shy about writing and speaking about her abolitionist beliefs.  Her husband forbid her to speak her opinions, or to publish her diaries as she wished.  The relationship grew ever more abusive from here, and Fanny took her daughters and fled to England.  In 1847, Butler filed for, and was granted, a divorce, after citing abandonment and “misdeed” by Kemble.

Because she was held at fault in the legal proceedings, Fanny was not allowed to maintain custody of their daughters.  Out of fear for their safety, she waited to publish her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 until 1863 (she had published her earlier journals right after her marriage, as well as several plays).  The work was no less powerful for the delay, and while it is marked by a number of contemporary prejudices,  it still cited by historians today as a powerful and brutally honest account of slavery, and, especially remarkable for the focus Fanny had on enslaved Black women.

Fanny later returned to the stage, giving dramatic readings of Shakespeare, and lived for much of her later life in Lenox, Massachusetts, before returning to London in 1877.   She died in 1893.

Fanny Kemble, via Wikipedia

In honor of this remarkable woman, we hope you enjoy this poem, published in Fanny Kemble’s 1844 collection of poetry


Let me not die for ever, when I’m gone
To the cold earth! but let my memory
Live like the gorgeous western light that shone
Over the clouds where sank day’s majesty.
Let me not be forgotten! though the grave
Has clasped its hideous arms around my brow.
Let me not be forgotten! though the wave
Of time’s dark current rolls above me now.
Yet not in tears remembered be my name;
Weep over those ye loved; for me, for me,
Give me the wreath of glory, and let fame
Over my tomb spread immortality!

Happy Birthday, William Steig!

Growing up,  Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was one of my favorite books, so it is with enormous pleasure that we at the Free For All celebrate it’s author, William Steig, who was born this day in 1907.

Via ThingLink

Steig was the child of two Polish-Jewish immigrants from Austria; his father Joseph was a house painter, and his mother Laura was a seamstress.  Growing up, he loved art and literature, and his mother, especially, encouraged his own artistic endeavors.  He was also a talented athlete, and was a member of the collegiate All-American water polo team.  He graduated high school at 15, and though he attended three colleges: two years at City College of New York, three years at the National Academy of Design and five days at the Yale School of Fine Arts, but never graduated from any of them.  His siblings were also artistically talented: is brother Irwin was a journalist and painter, his brother Henry was a writer, painted, and saxophonist, and his brother Arthur was a writer and poet, who, according to Steig, read The Nation in the cradle, was telepathic and “drew as well as Picasso or Matisse”.

Because they were confirmed Socialists, Steig explained,  “My parents didn’t want their sons to become laborers, because we’d be exploited by businessmen, and they didn’t want us to become businessmen, because then we’d exploit the laborers.  Since we couldn’t afford to study professions, we were encouraged to be artists.”  Steig became the breadwinner of his family when his father lost his job in the Great Depression.  By selling his drawings, he remembered, “I earned $4,500 the first year, and it was more than our family, then four of us, needed.”

Steig published his first New Yorker cartoon in 1930.  It was the first of some 1,600 that he would publish in the magazine.  His humor was visual far more than it was linguistic–in other words, you could learn what you needed about the cartoon and the joke it told by looking at it far more than you could by reading the caption.  This style liberated a number of cartoonists who came after him to try to convey more with art than with words.

According to The New York TimesSteig was also credited with changing the nature of the greeting card industry. His symbolic drawings were licensed to appear on cocktail napkins, glasses and cards. “Greeting cards used to be all sweetness and love,” he explained in an interview with The Hartford Courant. “I started doing the complete reverse — almost a hate card — and it caught on.”  You can see an example of his card to above, taken from Fine Art America, and decide for yourself.

Steig was also a gifted children’s book writer and illustrator, publishing 25 in the course of his lifetime.  He especially liked using animals as the characters in the stories because he “could get crazier with animals and have them do stranger things.”  Not only did Steig’s books embrace the slightly kooky logic, language, and morals of childhood, but his drawings were also simple, accessible, and, like so many of his drawings for grown-ups, packed with emotion.

So if you’re looking for a bit of an escape today, why not check out a few of William Steig’s books, listed below.  I guarantee you that you already know of at least one of them!

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble: A terrific, funny, and tense story about being careful what you wish for, as well as the power of parents to see you for who you really are.  Even if it’s a rock.  This book actually got Steig in a bit of hot water–in the course of the book, the police are summoned to help find our hero, Sylvester.  Steig made the policemen pigs, a choice that got the book banned in places because the International Conference of Police Associations thought Mr. Steig was calling policemen pigs.  Steig adamantly argued his intention was never negative.  The book won the National Book Award and the Caldecott Medal.

Doctor De Soto: Doctor De Soto, a mouse dentist, copes with the toothaches of various animals.  He and his wife, who serves as his assistant, work together to treat patients with as little pain as possible. Dr. De Soto uses different chairs, depending on the size of the animal, with Mrs. De Soto guiding her husband with a system of pulleys for treating extra-large animals. They refuse to treat any animal who likes to eat mice…until one day a fox comes to them in great pain.  This is a story that really highlights Steig’s love of language–to this day, it’s still fun to read the Fox’s dialog while he’s in Dr. De Soto’s chair with his mouth propped open (“Frank Oo Berry Mush!”).  This book was in my dentist’s office when I was a kid, and, as a result, I learned that dentists were nice, and would help you out, even if you said silly things to them.  And didn’t try to eat them.

Shrek!: Raise your hand if you knew that William Steig was the creator of everyone’s favorite green ogre.  The name “Shrek” is the romanization of the Yiddish word that equates to the German Schreck and meaning “fear” or “fright”.  It’s a common exclamation in Yiddish culture, and thus a natural choice for Steig to name his ogre who leaves his home and travels the world to find his princess.  Steven Spielberg acquired the rights for the book in 1991, and released the film Shrek in 2001.  Steig passed away shortly before the release of Shrek 2, and the film is dedicated to him.