Tag Archives: Author Days

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Free For All birthday wish to Hans Fallada!

Via Melville House Press

You might not have heard of Hans Fallada.  That’s ok.  His work fell into general obscurity over the second half of the twentieth century.  However, the grand and glorious people at the Melville House Press (whose blog is very nearly almost as terrific as ours), have gone a long way to bringing him back into the literary fold, so to speak, and to put his work in front of the eyeballs of a new generation.

Fallada (whose given name was Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) was born on this day in 1893 in Greifswald, Germany. Though he always seems to have had trouble fitting in with his peers, his real struggles began in 1909, when he was run-over by a horse cart, and kicked in the face by the horse, and 1910, when he contracted typhus.  The pain and isolation of these events marked Fallada for life,–as the drug addiction he developed from the pain killers he was given.  His battle with depression was a life-long one, as well, meaning he spent a good deal of time between the wars in asylums and prison as a result of his drug addictions, even as he grew in prominence as an author.

Fallada was very much a writer of the moment, and his books dealt with contemporary scenarios and politics.  As a result, it wasn’t long before some of his most popular works were banned from German libraries, and Fallada himself was declared an “undesirable author”.  Fearing for his well-being, Fallada’s British publisher, George Putnam, send his personal yacht to Berlin to pick up Fallada and his wife.  Though their bags were packed, Fallada declared at the very last minute that he couldn’t leave (he had confided to a friend years before “I could never write in another language, nor live in any other place than Germany.”)  He wrote children’s books and other non-political pieces in order to remain under the radar, until he was called upon by Goebbels to write a specifically anti-Semitic novel that would be backed by the Nazi party.

As the result of an altercation with his (now ex-) wife, Fallada was incarcerated in an insane asylum in 1944.  In order to protect himself, Fallada told officials he had an assignment to fulfill for Goebbels’s office, which protected him from the inhuman treatment to which asylum patients were typically subjected. But rather than writing the anti-Jewish novel, Fallada used his ration of paper to write a novel called The Drinker (Der Trinker), a deeply critical autobiographical account of life under the Nazis, and a short diary In meinem fremden Land (A Stranger in My Own Country).  He wrote in a dense, overlapping hand that obscured most of his words, allowing the manuscript, and Fallada himself, to be saved until he was released in December 1944 as the Nazi government began to crumble.

Fallada died in February 1947, aged 53, from a weakened heart due to years of addiction to morphine, alcohol and other drugs, leaving behind the recently completed novel Every Man Dies Alone, an anti-fascist novel based on the true story of a German couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, who were executed for producing and distributing anti-Nazi material in Berlin during the war.  Though many German writers who had escaped Nazi German disparaged him (and his work) because he chose to remain, we thankfully now have the chance to meet Fallada anew, and to realize just how brave a survivor he was, and to encounter his words anew–when we may need them more than ever.

Via http://www.fallada.de

And speaking of books, let’s take a look at some of the other books that traipsed onto our shelves this week…

Vexed with Devils: In a week that saw the dedication of the Salem Witch Trials memorial, it seems fitting to showcase Erika Gasser’s new book, which focuses on the cultural history of witchcraft, witchcraft-possession phenomena and the role of men and patriarchal power.  As she discusses in this fascinating work, witchcraft trials had as much to do with who had power in the community, to impose judgement or to subvert order, as they did with religious belief.  Essentially, witchcraft was used as a form of social policing.  She argues that the gendered dynamics and power-plays inherent in stories of possession and witchcraft show how men asserted their power in society and over each other (and the women around them). While all men were not capable of accessing power in the same ways, many of the people involved—those who acted as if they were possessed, men accused of being witches, and men who wrote possession propaganda—invoked manhood as they struggled to advocate for themselves during these perilous times.  This is a wonderfully researched and insightful book, and, as Publisher’s Weekly noted,  “Anyone seeking a fresh perspective on, and deeper understanding of, such possession accounts will not be disappointed.”

Like a Fading Shadow: Using recently declassified FBI files, Antonio Muñoz Molina has reconstructed a fiction look into James Earl Ray’s final steps through the Lisbon, where he hid for two months following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  But Molina has also wrapped his own story up in this tale of self-identity and deception, alternating between Ray in 1968 at the center of an international manhunt; a thirty-year-old Muñoz Molina in 1987 struggling to find his literary voice; and the author in the present, reflecting on his life and the form of the novel as an instrument for imagining the world through another person’s eyes.   The result is a deep, complex, and enlightening work that Kirkus Reviews noted, “delicately oscillates between an author’s quest for truth and a criminal’s search for safety . . . A tragically poetic study of the calamity that set back the civil rights movement.”

At the Table of Wolves: Kay Kenyon is a science fiction writer beloved by reviewers and readers alike, and the opening of her new series–described as a mix of espionage and X-Men is sure to win her even more followers. In 1936, there are paranormal abilities that have slowly seeped into the world, brought to the surface by the suffering of the Great War.  The British haven’t managed to outpace Germany in weaponizing these new powers, until the ultra-secret site called Monkton Hall is established.  Kim Tavistock, whose power allowers her to draw out truths that people most wish to hide, is among the test subjects at the facility. When she wins the confidence of caseworker Owen Cherwell, she is recruited to a mission to expose the head of Monkton Hall—who is believed to be a German spy.  As she infiltrates the upper-crust circles of some of England’s fascist sympathizers, she encounters dangerous opponents, including the charismatic Nazi officer Erich von Ritter, and discovers a plan to invade England.  Though no one believes her story, Kim is determined to expose the plan and save England–even if she has to do it single-handedly.  With deft characterization and quick pacing, Kenyon has created a book that earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who called it  “A superb adventure, worthy to launch a distinguished historical fantasy series.”

Less: Picture it: You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.  What do you do?  Well, if you’re Arthur Less, you accept every single one of those invitations, and embark on a marvelous, unexpectedly touching, madcap journey around the world, through surprise encounters and unanticipated birthdays and into love.  This sharp satire on Americans abroad is also a lovely look into our shared humanity, and a book that encouraged The Washington Post to declare, “Greer is an exceptionally lovely writer, capable of mingling humor with sharp poignancy…. [His] narration, so elegantly laced with wit, cradles the story of a man who loses everything: his lover, his suitcase, his beard, his dignity.”

The Epiphany Machine: “Everyone else knows the truth about you, now you can know it, too”–that’s the slogan for an odd, junky contraption that tattoos personalized revelations on its users’ forearms. A number of city dwellers buy into the epiphany machine, including Venter Lowood’s parents, and even though they move away, Victor can’t ignore the stigma of those tattoos–or their accuracy.  So when Venter’s grandmother finally asks him to confront the epiphany machine, he’s only too happy to oblige.  But when he meets the machine’s surprisingly charming (if slightly off-putting) operator, Adam Lyons, Venter finds himself falling for the machine, as well…until Venter gets close enough to recognize the undeniable pattern between specific epiphanies and violent crimes.  A pattern that’s gone unreported.  A pattern that proves the machine may be right, after all.  This big, imaginative, tragicomedy of a book earned another starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who cheered that “This is a wildly charming, morally serious bildungsroman with the rare potential to change the way readers think.”


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Happy Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

Today, we celebrate the 200th birthday of Hery David Thoreau–pencil maker, nap taker, revolutionary, intellectual lover of long walks.

Henry David Thoreau was born into a family of pencil makers on this day in 1817.  Though it was assumed he, too, would get involved in the family business, he found getting up early in the morning to get to work, and spending long hours engaged in a single activity (that he wasn’t terribly fond of to begin with) inexplicable, tedious, and….no pun intended, rather pointless.  Things only got worse as the graphite dust from the pencils got in his lungs, causing long, no doubt frightening bouts of night-time coughing.  He developed insomnia that persisted even when he gave up pencil-making, and tried private tutoring to earn a living.

Now, let’s, for just a moment, be honest here.  Who hasn’t felt like the young Henry, staring out the window, fantasizing about giving it all up and just going for a walk in the sunshine because it was a nice day out?   Or taking a nap because you were tired and unproductive otherwise?

Walden Pond

We learn a lot about Thoreau’s revolutionary sensibilities–his refusal to pay his poll tax to a government that held a sixth of its population in slavery, because it made him, in a small way, complicit with the institution of slavery.  In his own words:

I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance.

We learn about his “hermit” lifestyle at Walden Pond, a house which he built with his own, two, pencil-making hands.  The quote my high-school teacher always threw around was:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

But I don’t think either of these views actually tell us much about what a unique individual Thoreau was.  Because he was far, far more human than any quick portrait of him portrays.

When he was living at Walden, Thoreau brought his laundry home to his mother.  He had dinner with his friends in Concord, most especially Ralph Waldo Emerson, not only because he wasn’t really big on cooking, but because he enjoyed the company.  He invited Louisa May Alcott and her sisters to Walden Pond, gave them lessons on nature,  and told them fairy stories about the creatures that lived under the ferns around his house.  He planted a garden for Nathaniel Hawthorne as a wedding present, not only because wedding presents were expensive, but because he wanted to give Hawthorne a place where he could think freely (check out a photo of Thoreau’s garden from this photo, courtesy of the Trustees of Reservations).  And, according to Hawthorne, Thoreau had a really good sense of humor.

Just an aside, but seriously, the friendship between Hawthorne and Thoreau is one that really deserves far more attention.  They were the most mis-matched buddies you could imagine, but they both genuinely appreciate each other, as you can see from this quote by Hawthorne on the first dinner that he and Thoreau shared.

Replica of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond

But, to get back to my point, what I really think made Thoreau unique and, in his own way, revolutionary, was his ability and determination to keep asking WHY: Why he was getting up early and going to work if he hated it, and what benefit it was serving him, or the greater world to keep doing it.  Why he was paying taxes to an institution that he hated.  Why he wasn’t living the life he believed would make him thoroughly content.  And why other people weren’t living their own life, either:

Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made. Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

He believed, above all, in honesty, and confronted the problems of his life with his eyes wide open.  He recognized that nature, by itself, was beautiful and balanced, and that, if humans could just get out of their own way and recognize the lessons of nature, they probably would be better off. He recognized the beauty and the joy around him, without turning a blind eye to the terrible stuff.  He wasn’t afraid to be unique–and to call out a society that tried to enforce conformity:

It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things…As if there were safety in stupidity alone.

Now, it is very, very true that Thoreau was in a  unique and privileged position.  He had friends who were willing to support him , he didn’t have dependents who needed his labor or financial support.  He was provided an education (at Harvard, no less).  Ultimately, he had time, and used it to create the space he needed to live the life he wanted.  Few of us today are in a position, financial, familial, or otherwise, to do what Thoreau did.  But that doesn’t mean that his choices are impossible to emulate.  For all the awful going on around us, there is still beauty around us, and, like Thoreau, we deserve to enjoy it,  and the people who make us better and happy, as well.

However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.

If you’re interested in learning more about Thoreau, check out this new, sensational biography by Laura Dassow Walls!


Five Book Friday!

And many very happy Free-For-All birthday wishes to poet, prose writer, diplomat, and translator, Czesław Miłosz!

Courtesy of Culture.pl

Miłosz was born on this day in 1911 in Szetejnie, then part of the Russian Empire, now Lithuania.  A polymath from a young age, Miłosz became fluent in Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, English, and French.  His first volume of poetry was published in 1934, the same year he received his law degree from Stefan Batory University in Vilnius.  He spent most of the Second World War in Nazi-occupied Poland,and while he didn’t joint the resistance or take part in the Warsaw Uprising, he did join the Organizacja Socjalistyczno-Niepodległościowa “Wolność” (“The ‘Freedom’ Socialist Pro-Independence Organisation”), and was responsible for helping Jews escape Poland.  Though the exact number is unknown, we know that he personally saved the Tross and Wołkomińska families, actions which earned him the medal of the Righteous Among the Nations in Yad Vashem, Israel in 1989.  In later life, he also became a supporter to gay and lesbian rights, especially in Poland.

After the war, he served as cultural attaché of the newly formed Communist People’s Republic of Poland (you can see his passport on the left, courtesy of Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) , though he defected in 1951 and lived under political asylum in Paris until moving to the United States in 1960.  Because his works were banned by the Communist Party as a result of his defection, his work was almost never read in his home country.  It was only when Miłosz received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 that many Poles discovered his work.  After the Iron Curtain fell, he was able to return to Poland, at first to visit, later to live part-time in Kraków, where he passed away in 2004.

You can check out Miłosz‘s poetry via PoetryHunter.com, or come into the Library and check out some of his printed works.

And speaking of books you can check out, here are some of the new books that paraded onto our shelves this week, and are eager to be a part of your Independence Day festivities!

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria: In 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets demanding freedom, democracy and human rights in the movement that became known as the Arab Spring. The government’s ferocious response, and the defiance of the demonstrators, spiraled into brutal civil war that has escalated to become the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.  However, in the midst of all the headlines, arguments, and racist dogma that has been unleashed by the war in Syria, the voices of individual Syrians has gone largely overlooked.  This book, based on interviews with hundreds of displaced Syrians conducted over four years across the Middle East and Europe, tells their stories.  Some are pages long, some read like a verse of poetry.  Together, though, they provide an unforgettable testament to human strength and endurance, as much as it is a counter-narrative to the prevailing tale of brutality, hatred, and disregard for that self-same humanity.  Larry Siems, author of The Torture Report, wrote a powerful review of this book, saying, in part, “To read these pages, to meet these men and women, is to cross a bridge ourselves, and to tremble: at the fragility of social order…but also at the love, anger, terror, trauma, compassion, endurance, awe, and determination a single human voice can convey.”

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: For the record, I am physically exhausted by books that define women by their relationship to men.  However, this book puts a feminist spin on some of the best of 19th-century’s weird and science fiction, so it definitely deserves another look.  Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a significant financial reward for information leading to his capture, but Mary’s search leads her instead to Hyde’s daughter, Diana.  With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, befriending more women created through experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.  When their quest brings them face to face with the power-crazed scientists who created them, the question becomes, who is the real monster of this story?  Theodora Goss’ debut novel is full of bravery, action, sisterhood, and a whip-smart intelligence that re-imagines all these classic 19th-century narratives of ‘progress’ that earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who called it “A tour de force of reclaiming the narrative, executed with impressive wit and insight.”

Grief Cottage: On the surface, Gail Godwin’s newest book is a ghost story.  But it’s also a very human story about loss, grief, guilt, and the power of art that transcends typical conceptions of genre.  After his mother’s death, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a small South Carolina island with his great aunt, a reclusive painter with a haunted past. Aunt Charlotte, otherwise a woman of few words, points out a ruined cottage, telling Marcus she had visited it regularly after she’d moved there thirty years ago because it matched the ruin of her own life, and inspired her to paint as a way of capturing their mutual desolation.  The islanders call the place “Grief Cottage,” because a boy and his parents disappeared from it during a hurricane fifty years before. Their bodies were never found and the cottage has stood empty ever since.  Marcus himself begins paying visits to the cottage, eventually meeting the young ghost who haunts it, and learning about the truth behind its possession of Grief Cottage.  Booklist gave this haunting tale a starred review, noting “Godwin’s riveting and wise story of the slow coalescence of trust and love between a stoic artist and a grieving boy . . . subtly and insightfully explores different forms of haunting and vulnerability, strength and survival”.

The Black Elfstone: The Fall of Shannara: Terry Brooks is arguably one of the best-known fantasy authors at work today, and with good reason.  His Shannara series has spanned 41 works (broken up into various sub-series), and this newest work launches the first in the series’ four-part epic conclusion.  Across the Four Lands, peace has reigned for generations. But now, in the far north, an unknown enemy is massing. More troubling than the carnage is the strange and wondrous power wielded by the attackers—a breed of magic unfamiliar even to the Druid order. Fearing the worst, the High Druid dispatches a diplomatic party under the protection of the order’s sworn guardian, Dar Leah, to confront the mysterious, encroaching force and discover its purpose.  Meanwhile, onetime High Druid Drisker Arc and his protege are beginning quests of their own, quests that will eventually drawn them together with Dar Leah in a tale that will have monumental consequences for the Four Lands.  Though new readers may have a little bit of difficulty getting into this series, overall, Brooks’ works aren’t impossible to pick up mid-series, and his skills in the fantasy genre shouldn’t be missed.  Patrick Rothfuss (one of my favorite fantasy authors) wrote a blurb for this book, saying “I can’t even begin to count how many of Terry Brooks’s books I’ve read (and reread) over the years. From Shannara to Landover, his work was a huge part of my childhood.”

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions: Our planet has witnessed five mass-extinction events in its history, and scientists today are seeing some pretty strong correlations between those events and our current climate changes.  In this terrifying, fascinating, and wide-ranging book, journalist Peter Brennan delves deep into earth’s past to discuss the five previous life-changing (literally) events, while presenting the stories from the scientists on the front lines of climate change research today, whose modern technology can reveal even more to us about the catastrophes of the past, how life on Earth manages to endure, and what all these stories can mean for us and our own future.  This is far more than “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it”.  Indeed, according to Library Journal, “If readers have time for only one book on the subject, this wonderfully written, well-balanced, and intricately researched (though not too dense) selection is the one to choose.”

Until next week, beloved patrons–Happy Reading!

Five Book Friday!

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

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

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

The Hanoi Botanical Gardens, Courtesy of Vietnamtourism

A Stroll at the Flower Nursery

(The Hanoi Botanical Gardens)

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

And now…on to the books!

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

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

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

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

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


Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

Five Book Friday!

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

Murathan Mungan, courtesy of FotoKritik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week, beloved patrons, happy reading!

Happy Birthday, Ben Okri!

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

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

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

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

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

An African Elegy
By Ben Okri

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

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

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

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

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

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


Five Book Friday!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!