Tag Archives: History!

Telling New Stories about The First World War

Those of you who attended the first week of our two-week book discussion on Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone were treated to a lively discussion about the kind of stories we tell about the First World War, and how they shape the way we think about history and what we can learn from a given moment in time.

As was pointed out last night, the traditional narrative of The First World War tells us that the war was ugly and disillusioning and utterly, totally futile.  That it’s only value lies in the fact that it led to the Second World War.  But in reality, that narrative obscures the critical importance of the First World War to a significant number of historic events, movements, and developments.  To take just a few examples, our language evolved as a result of the war.  Phrases like “binge drink”, “blind spot”, and “pushing up daisies” all entered the vernacular between 1914 and 1918.  The rise of women employed in industry, mechanics, and technical jobs rose significantly, if only for the duration of the war.  But the result was that a significant number of women received training for new kinds of work, were exposed to new people, and learned a new kind of self-reliance.  In the United States, Black men and women enlisted in a number of positions, and worked on the home front, leading to a change in national demographics, but, more importantly, a renewed fight for civil rights across the country.  Some of the medical advancements made during the war remain with us today, from plastic surgery to burn treatments.

And so, with that in mind, we wanted to share some book recommendations for those looking to read some new stories about the First World War that get away from the narratives of the War Poets and traditional narratives that stick with us regarding the war.  We hope you enjoy!

The Forbidden ZoneMary Borden was born in Chicago, but was living with her husband in London when the war broke out.  When the Red Cross turned down her offer to buy them a hospital, she built, funded, and staffed a hospital on her own, and worked there as a volunteer nurse for the duration of the war.  This book is a collection of her reminiscences, memories, and experiences of war service, written largely while she was at the front.  As a result, this is a collection of stories about the women who lived behind the front lines, and how they survived the war, about the colonial troops who served for the British and the French armies, about the kind of wounds she treated, and the moral and physical challenges of caring for soldiers in war, knowing you were healing them to go back and fight further.  Structurally, the book is a modernist masterpiece, show that the modernist form of writing was not in anyway exclusive to the men in the trenches.

Three ComradesErich Maria Remarque is perhaps best known for his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, but his later works are also sensational, and drive home the lasting effects of the war, not only on veterans, but on the societies as a whole that had to endure the war.  This book, written during the rise of Hitler and his National Socialist Party, tell of three war veterans, and the woman with whom one of them falls in love.  It’s a tragedy, and it’s a hauntingly beautiful study of the melancholy and loss that its main characters are all suffering after the war, and in the world it left behind.  It’s also a deeply moving story of friendship and love that counters the narratives of brutality and anger that are so often found in stories from the trenches.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh cover 2012 edition.jpgThe Forty Days of Musa Dagh: The First World War was not only a European war–it was one that truly encompassed the world, and Austrian novelist Franz Werfel shares one of the darkest parts of the war in this novel, based on true events.  The story was inspired by the self-defense by a small community of Armenians living near Musa Dagh, in the Ottoman Empire (the area is part of current-day Turkey), and recounts the events of the Armenian Genocide, which began within the context of the war, with perpetrators using the chaos of war to hide and justify their actions.  Werfel continued to rewrite and update the book after its first publication in response to the rise of the Nazi party, and the persecution of people within Werfel’s own life.  The Armenian Genocide is a critically important aspect of the First World War, but this book also documents the Genocide itself, and sheds light on how states and people shift their language to dehumanize groups within its own borders.

Remembering Boston’s Great Molasses Flood

Via the Associated Press, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/15/685154620/a-deadly-tsunami-of-molasses-in-bostons-north-end

On Jan. 15, 1919, a tank of molasses stored in Boston’s North End, ruptured, sending a cascading wave of the thick, sugary syrup down the streets. This “Great Molasses Flood” killed 21 people, numerous animals, and injured 150.

The tank was built to be a holding vessel for molasses until it could be transported to a nearby distillery, where it was converted into industrial alcohol for World War I munitions.  Because the war was over, it was expected that the molasses would be shipped on to a distillery to produce rum.  As historian of the event Stephen Puleo explained in an interview with WBUR, the residents of the area–one of Boston’s busiest economic districts–knew the tank was structurally unsound before it ruptured:

There were signs that the tank was faltering, but the people of the North End had gotten used to its instability.

“There were often comments made by people around the vicinity that this tank would shudder and groan every time it was full, and it leaked from day one,” Puleo said. “It was very customary for children of the North End to go and collect molasses with pails.”

So on the day of the flood, despite leaks and groans, no one anticipated that the tank was about to burst, unleashing a wave of 2.3 million gallons of molasses that would move 35 miles an hour down Commercial Street.

While we don’t have any hard and fast answers as to why the tank failed, a number of theories and facts have come to light.  One of the first rumors to be circulated was that an anarchist’s bomb had broke the tank open, but no proof has ever been found to verify that rumor–which, admittedly, was largely fear-based and shows the effects of the First World War on people’s consciousness at the time.

As History.com reports, the tank itself

More recent investigations suggest several fundamental problems with the structure of the tank. Designed to hold 2.5 million gallons of liquid, it measured 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter. But its steel walls, which ranged from 0.67 inches at the bottom to 0.31 inches at the top, were too thin to support the weight of a full tank of molasses, found a 2014 analysis by Ronald Mayville, a senior structural engineer in the Massachusetts consulting firm of Simpson, Gumpertz & Heger.

Temperature also had an effect on the tank.  A new shipment of molasses had arrived days before, and that liquid was warmer than the air outside.  The weight of the molasses as it hardened further strained the walls of the tank.  Apparently, when the company received complaints that the tank was leaking, it painted the tank brown to disguise the leaks rather than repair them.  As it roiled down the street, the hot molasses congealed, trapping people, cars, trolleys, and everything else in its path.

The force of the wave was enough to buckle and destroy the elevated railway that ran through the North End at the time:

Via Wikipedia Wikicommons

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Boston recently used ground-penetrating radar to determine the location of the giant molasses tank that caused the Great Molasses Flood of 1919.  Today, colored flags marked the site of the tank as city officials and history buffs gathered at Langone Park in the North End to mark the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

Looking to learn more about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919?  Check out these books!

Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919: Probably the best known (at least ’round these parts) book about the Great Molasses Flood, reporter Stephen Puleo brings readers into the world of Boston at the time, and makes the smallest details of the date come to live.  But, as he also points out, the molasses flood was more than an isolated event. Its story overlays America’s story during a tumultuous decade in our history. Tracing the era from the tank’s construction in 1915 through the multiyear lawsuit that followed the tragedy, Dark Tide uses the drama of the flood to examine the sweeping changes brought about by World War I, Prohibition, the Anarchist movement, the Red Scare, immigration, and the role of big business in society.  Puleo is a friend of the Peabody Library, so we love to promote his super-terrific text.

The Great Molasses Flood : Boston, 1919: Written for a younger audience, Deborah Kops’ book places the Molasses Flood in its historical context with fascinating results.  She discusses the influenza epidemic that embroiled the city, as well as the recently ended First World War.  As she notes, January 1919 was a hopeful time. Schools had reopened. So had the soda fountains, where kids went to buy Cokes. On New Year’s Eve tens of thousands of cheering, singing Bostonians gathered to ring in the new year. They jammed the city’s cafés and hotels and overflowed into the streets. Everyone seemed thrilled that life in this old port city was returning to normal.  But the molasses flood would change the mood and focus of the city, and have repercussions that would linger for decades to come.

A Head Full of GhostsPaul Tremblay’s book isn’t really about the molasses flood, which should be fairly evident from the book’s description, but it does incorporate it into the plot.  Marjorie Barrett, the focus of the book, is a story teller, who understands the power of narrative to shape our ways of thinking.  One of the first ways that we learn this is in her rendition of the molasses flood–a horribly visceral telling that names one of the real-life victims of the disaster, and portends the terrible events of the book that will unfold.  If you want to talk about the power of history to terrify even today, then don’t miss this pitch-perfect novel!

A (Belated) Poem for the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice

Everyone Sang, by Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

(November 11, 1918)

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy August to all of you, beloved patrons!

I think it’s very safe to say that we are in the midst of the “Dog Days of Summer”, that period of hot, sultry weather that are frankly, perfect for little else but finding a good book to read and trying to move as little as possible.  But what does the phrase actually mean?

According to National Geographic, Greeks and Romans of ancient times coined the phrase, “dog days”to refer to the period of time when Sirius, the dog star, appeared to rise just before the sun, in late July. They referred to these days as the hottest time of the year, a period that could bring fever, or even catastrophe.  In ancient Egyptian culture, the star we know as Sirius was associated with the Egyptian god Osiris, the god of life, death, fertility, and rebirth, and Sopdet, the embodiment of the star, who is pictured as a goddess who is pictured with a five-pointed star above her head (see left).  Star-gazers noted that Sirius rose just before the sun each year immediately prior to the annual flooding of the Nile River.  Although the floods had the potential to bring destruction, they also encouraged new soil and new life.  The Egyptian new year was celebrated with a festival known as The Coming of Sopdet.

So if you have a view of the night sky where you are, beloved patrons, have a look up and see if you can spot Sirius.  The image at the top of this post provides a map to help you.  Either way, you can celebrate a time of rejuvenation with a new book!  Here are just a few of the titles that have spread out on our shelves to savor the air conditioning–and to meet you!

The Seas: Samantha Hunt is a writer with one powerful imagination, and in this slim volume, she weaves one heck of a tale that blends myth, romance, and grim reality in a way that will leave you spellbound.  Moored in a coastal fishing town so far north that the highways only run south, the unnamed narrator of this tale is a misfit, and the subject of cruel local gossip. Her father, a sailor, walked into the ocean eleven years earlier and never returned, leaving his wife and daughter to keep a forlorn vigil. Surrounded by water and beckoned by the sea, she clings to what her father once told her: that she is a mermaid.  True to myth, she finds herself in hard love with a land-bound man, an Iraq War veteran thirteen years her senior.The mesmerizing, fevered coming-of-age tale that follows will land her in jail. Her otherworldly escape will become the stuff of legend.  This is an inventive, creative, and startling insightful work that has critics and fellow writers dazzled.  The Chicago Review of Books put it well in its review when it noted, “It’s hard to imagine that a book so brief could tackle the Iraq war, grief over the loss of a parent, the longing for freedom, an enthrallment with the ocean, loneliness, sexual awakening, faith, and etymology, all in less than 200 pages, but Samantha Hunt has done it, and done it well.”

Jar of Hearts: Those of you looking for a twisty, turny thriller to pass the summer days should look no further than Jennifer Hillier’s latest page-turner.  When she was sixteen years old, Angela Wong—one of the most popular girls in school—disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever suspected that her best friend, Georgina Shaw, now an executive and rising star at her Seattle pharmaceutical company, was involved in any way.  Certainly not Kaiser Brody, who was close with both girls back in high school.  Now, fourteen years later, Kaiser, a detective with Seattle PD, unearths a fresh–and shocking–lead: Angela was a victim of serial killer Calvin James.  But Calvin James was also Georgina’s first love .  And as a result, Geo knew what happened to Angela and told no one. For fourteen years, she carried the secret of Angela’s death, until the day Geo was arrested and sent to prison.  While everyone thinks they finally know the truth, there are dark secrets buried deep. And when new bodies begin to turn up, killed in the exact same manner as Angela Wong, it seems the past and present are about to collide in terrible ways.  Hillier is known for her surprising, emotional plots, and this book promises to show her talents off to their very best advantage.  Publisher’s Weekly praised it as “Engrossing…there’s no denying her page-turner’s grab-you-by-the-throat power.”

BelleweatherSusanna Kearsley has earned a devoted following for her stirring historical fiction, and this book offers readers the chance to explore a house with a legend of romance and tragedy, all stemming back to the summer of 1759, when the American colonies were embroiled in the Seven Years War (also known, not very accurately, as the French and Indian War).  In this complex and dangerous time, a young French Canadian lieutenant is captured and billeted with a Long Island family, an unwilling and unwelcome guest. As he begins to pitch in with the never-ending household tasks and farm chores, Jean-Philippe de Sabran finds himself drawn to the daughter of the house. Slowly, Lydia Wilde comes to lean on Jean-Philippe until their lives become inextricably intertwined. Legend has it that the forbidden love between Jean-Philippe and Lydia ended tragically, but centuries later, the clues they left behind slowly unveil the true story.  Kearsley apparently based this novel on her own family history, and Library Journal rewarded her efforts with a starred review,  saying in part,  “Rich characterizations and vivid historical flavor will keep readers enthralled in both past and present story lines. Highly recommended for Kearsley’s many admirers and fans of romantic dual-time historical fiction.”

Northland: A 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border: The United States’ northern border is the world’s longest international boundary, yet it’s a rarely discussed, and seldom explored area, but to the tens of millions who live and work near the line, the region even has its own name: the northland.  Travel writer Porter Fox spent three years exploring 4,000 miles of the border between Maine and Washington, traveling by canoe, freighter, car, and foot.  This book is the record of his journey, the history he learned on his trek, and the people he encountered on the way.  Setting out from the easternmost point in the mainland United States, Fox follows explorer Samuel de Champlain’s adventures across the Northeast; recounts the rise and fall of the timber, iron, and rail industries; crosses the Great Lakes on a freighter; tracks America’s fur traders through the Boundary Waters; and traces the forty-ninth parallel from Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean.   A marvelous, thoughtful work that explores the economy, ecology, people, politics, and history of the United States, Canada, and all those who have had dealing therein.  Kirkus Reviews gave this book a starred review, hailing, “Richly populated with fascinating northlanders, Native Americans, and many border patrol agents, this is highly entertaining and informative travel literature.”

The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies: From such illustrious titles do fascinating books emerge!  Dawn Raffel’s book tells the story of a sideshow presenter, the titular Dr. Couney, who discovered that he could use incubators (and very careful medical care) to save the lives of babies who were born prematurely.   How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century émigré became the savior to families with premature infants, known then as “weaklings”–while ignoring the scorn of the medical establishment and fighting the climate of eugenics–is a wonderfully intriguing and woefully under-explored story.  Raffel emphasized that Dr. Couney, for all his opportunistic entrepreneurial gusto, and the skeletons in his personal closet, genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients, and whose work and insight continues to offer hope to families around the world.  As Publisher’s Weekly notes, “With colorful descriptions of the carnival world and the medical marvels of early neonatalogy, Raffel makes a fascinating case for this unusual pioneer’s rightful place in medical history.” 

Until next week, beloved patrons, Happy Reading!

The Year Without A Summer?

On this warm day, we bring you a post that ran last year, dealing with the treacherous nature of summer weather and how bad it could really be.  We hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane!

…It seems this year, dear patrons, summer is holding out on us.  Today’s temperature is hovering near records lows, and it’s a bit…well…murky.

Now, that’s not to say that a brilliant, seasonal summer is not on the horizon.  I’ve already got one sunburn this year, so it’s not like we’ve never seen the sun.  It’s not like we’re in a year without a summer…

…although that did happen….

The year of 1816 is known as “The Year Without A Summer“.  This was largely due to global climactic abnormalities both caused and exacerbated by the eruption of Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in what is today Indonesia.  The eruption remains one of the most powerful eruptions in recorded history, and the only VEI-7 event witnessed (that means it’s super-colossal big).  The ash from that explosion was trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, and spread around the globe, causing massive temperature drops (since sunlight could not penetrate the ash cover).  Since the Earth was already experiencing what is now know as the “Little Ice Age”, this means that temperatures that were already lower than average plummeted, causing continental-wide harvest failures, and what Historian John D. Post  has called the “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world”.

From the New England Historical Society

We’re talking freezing temperatures here, snow in June (actually, on June 6th, according to historic records).  In the Berkshires, there was frost in August.  There were also wild temperature swings–areas of Pennsylvania recorded temperatures in the nineties in August, only to be below freezing three days later.  The result was widespread famine in Europe, especially in Ireland, north England, and Germany.

There were also a few not-so-horrific results of this summer.  Because of the pollution in their air reflecting the light, sunsets were said to be particularly spectacular during the three years that the effects of the Tambora were felt globally.  You can see these in the paintings by artist J.M.W. Turner, as seen below:

Chichester Canal circa 1828 by J.M.W. Turner via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The lack of oats to feed horses may have inspired the German inventor Karl Drais to research new ways of horseless transportation, which led to the invention of the velocipede, which was an early version of what we now know as the bicycle.

And because there was so much rain that summer, Percy Shelley and his wife Mary were forced to stay in doors during their holidays in Lake Geneva, which they spent with Lord Byron and Dr. Polidori.  That was the trip during which Mary Shelley first told the story that would become Frankenstein.

The comparative size of the Tambora eruption

Now, I’m not saying that you or I are going to use these chilly damp days (which are nothing compared to the Year Without A Summer, if we’re all being serious here for a second*) to invent a machine that will revolutionize human transport, or create a work of art that will redefine humanity.  But you might want to come into the Library and check out one of these books that focus on The Year Without A Summer.  You never know the effects it might have!

Tambora : the eruption that changed the worldThere are a number of books that look at Tambora and its effects, but Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s book looks at the eruption itself, and the global catastrophes it caused, but also brings the story forward,  utilizing modern climate science  to talk about manmade climate change in our own time.  Another quality selection is William Klingaman’s The year without summer : 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed historywhich emphasizes the social, cultural, and political changes wrought by the effects of the Tambora eruption.

The poet and the vampyre : the curse of Byron and the birth of literature’s greatest monstersThough Frankenstein is probably the most well-known work to emerge from that infamous trip to Lake Geneva, it should not be forgotten that Byron’s physician-friend, John Polidori, also wrote what we generally assume to be the first vampire tale, called “The Vampyre”.  It was mostly a send-up of Byron, which whom Polidori was very, very miffed, but still.  Without Polidori, we;d never have Dracula.  In this weirdly wonderful book, Andrew McConnell Stott looks at the love affairs, literary rivalries, and the supernatural influences that combined and collided to bring Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron, and Polidori to Geneva, and the effects of their meeting on world literature to this very day.

To Charm a Naughty CountessJust to lighten the mood a bit…Theresa Romain’s novel is set during the summer of 1816, and features Michael, Duke of Wyverne, who is desperately trying to save his estate from financial ruin after another abysmal harvest.  The simplest course of action is to marry, but for someone as anxious and socially awkward as Michael, the prospect seems deem, until the widowed Countess of Stratton decides to take him under her wing.  This is an all around delightful romance, featuring a decidedly un-alpha hero and a heroine who defies all conventions, and comes highly recommended, regardless of its time-setting.

*And just for the record, this event is a meteorological/climatological phenomenon that has nothing to do with global warming.  Indeed, the process of global warming would begin in earnest about a decade after this summer with the escalation of the Industrial Revolution.  Just so we don’t get confused here.

Five Book Friday!

As many fans of the film franchise Star Wars will know, today is a linguistically significant day–so don’t be surprised if someone comes up to you with the greeting “May the Fourth be with you!”

According to CNN:

As legend has it, and according to the origin story recognized by Lucasfilm, the phrase was first used on May 4, 1979, the day Margaret Thatcher took office as UK Prime Minister. The Conservative Party reportedly placed an ad in the London Evening News that read, “May the Fourth Be With You, Maggie. Congratulations.”

Via TVNZ

With social media, the line has grown in popularity and prevalence, so for those fans out there, May The Fourth Be With You.

There are plenty of other fun days to observe in May, too!  Check out a few of the more quirky and entertaining national days to celebrate soon:

May 5: Free Comic Book Day! For more information, check out the Free Comic Book Day website, and follow the #FreeComicBookDay!

May 6: National Lemonade Day: Started in 2007, this is a day aimed at teaching young people how to start, own and operate their very own business via a lemonade stand.  For more information, check out lemonadeday.org!

May 12: National Miniature Golf Day: Tee up, and learn more about other devotees of everyone’s real favorite sport via #NationalMiniGolfDay.

May 21: National American Red Cross Founder’s Day: Marking the the anniversary of the American Red Cross, which was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton.

May 25: National Tap Dance Day: Honoring the birthday of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, this is a perfect day to get your dancing shoes polished and ready to go!

And, as we all know, there is no day that is not perfect for finding a new book to savor!  Here are just a few of the stellar titles that have paraded onto our shelves this past week:

America is Not the Heart: Elaine Castillo’s debut, a multi-generational epic, has been featured and praised in magazine and on websites across the country, and hailed not only for its insight and honest, but for its humor, as well.  When Hero De Vera arrives in America–haunted by the political upheaval in the Philippines and disowned by her parents–she has already well experienced at rebuilding her life from scratch.  Now, she is starting anew once again, living in her uncle’s home in the Bay Area.  Her uncle’s younger wife knows enough about the might and secrecy of the De Vera family to keep her head down. But their daughter–the first American-born daughter in the family–can’t resist asking Hero about her damaged hands.  The tale that is revealed is a sprawling and soulful one about three generations of women in one family struggling to balance the promise of the American dream and the unshakeable grip of history.  Kirkus Reviews gave Castillo’s work a starred review, and offered a beautiful analysis of her book, saying in part: “Castillo is a vivid writer, and she has a real voice: vernacular and fluid, with a take-no-prisoners edge. At the same time, she complicates her narrative by breaking out of it in a variety of places—both by deftly incorporating languages such as Tagalog and Ilocano and through the use of flashback or backstory . . . Beautifully written, emotionally complex, and deeply moving, Castillo’s novel reminds us both that stories may be all we have to save us and also that this may never be enough.”

Losing the Nobel PrizeWhat would it have been like to be an eyewitness to the Big Bang? In 2014, astronomers wielding BICEP2, the most powerful cosmology telescope ever made, revealed that they’d glimpsed the spark that ignited the Big Bang. Millions around the world tuned in to the announcement broadcast live from Harvard University, immediately igniting rumors of an imminent Nobel Prize. But had these cosmologists truly read the cosmic prologue or, swept up in Nobel dreams, had they been deceived by a galactic mirage?  In this fascinating book, Brian Keating, inventor of the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) launches readers on a thrill ride through the high-stakes, ruthless world of modern science, discussing the development of mind-boggling technology and the hope for bigger, better, and more awe-inspiring discoveries.  He also argues that the Nobel Prize, instead of advancing scientific progress, may actually hamper it, encouraging speed and greed while punishing collaboration and bold innovation, and offers clear-sighting ideas for how to fix this process, as well.  Science and technology writers have penned splendid reviews of Keating’s book, praising his prose as well as his acumen.  Among them was ScienceNews, who noted how the book “dissects the error-prone humanity of science, but cuts the ugly details with beauty… Charming and clever, Losing the Nobel Prize bounces between clear explanations of nitty-gritty science, accounts of personal relationships and historical lessons.”

First Person: Man-Booker-Prize winning author Richard Flanagan is known for bending the rules of reality in his fiction, and this book, about a ghost writer and a conman is a stunning example of that talent.  Kif Kehlmann, a young, penniless writer, is rung in the middle of the night by the notorious con man and corporate criminal, Siegfried Heidl. About to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million, Heidl offers Kehlmann the job of ghost writing his memoir. He has six weeks to write the book, for which he’ll be paid $10,000. But as the writing gets under way, Kehlmann begins to fear that he is being corrupted by Heidl. As the deadline draws closer, he becomes ever more unsure if he is ghost writing a memoir, or if Heidl is rewriting him–his life, his future. Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder: Who is Siegfried Heidl–and who is Kif Kehlmann?  As time runs out, as Kehlmann’s world feels it is hurtling toward a catharsis, one question looms above all others: What is the truth?  Twisted, unsettling, and delightfully creative, Flanagan’s newest release received as starred review from Booklist,who called it “An acerbic exploration of how the contemporary world came to be defined by lies, deceit, and obfuscation . . . Full of hilarious asides, this sonorous, blackly comic novel offers searing insight into our times.”

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution: Here in Massachusetts, we often learn about the Industrial Revolution in terms of mills, looms, and Lowell.   Priya Satia’s thoroughly researched and rich history offers a different take on this seminal moment in human history by arguing that  war and Britain’s prosperous gun trade was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution and the state’s imperial expansion.  She opens with the story of a scandal: Samuel Galton of Birmingham, one of Britain’s most prominent gunmakers, has been condemned by his fellow Quakers, who argue that his profession violates the society’s pacifist principles. In his fervent self-defense, Galton argues that the state’s heavy reliance on industry for all of its war needs means that every member of the British industrial economy is implicated in Britain’s near-constant state of war.   From there, Satia considers the role and effect of firearms in the construction of western hegemony, challenging not only out thinking about the past, but its effect on our present and future, as well.  Booklist praised this work for (among other things) its “Tremendous scholarship. . . . Satia’s detailed and fresh look at the Industrial Revolution has appeal and relevance grounded in and reaching beyond history and social science to illuminate the complexity of present-day gun-control debates.”

The Great Stain: Witnessing American SlaveryNoel Rae’s work looks at slavery from the angle of contemporary, first-hand accounts of the practice, and its effects on enslaved people and those who enslaved them, creating a book that is difficult at times to read, but vitally necessary precisely because of the intimacy.  From the travel journals of sixteenth-century Spanish settlers who offered religious instruction and “protection” in exchange for farm labor, to the diaries of poetess Phillis Wheatley; from Frederick Law Olmsted’s book about traveling through the “cotton states,” to the accounts by enslaved peoples themselves, including Solomon Northrup and Mary Reynolds, this is a book that is eye-opening in its scope and research, and painfully prevalent even today.  David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, provided a blurb for this book, noting that “In the historical discussion, we often talk about the institution of slavery. We examine the debate over the legal question concerning slavery and its expansion in the United States, its role in the origin and conduct of the Civil War, but works such as The Great Stain bring us back to the human level, allowing us to hear what the institution meant for an individual.”

 

Until next week, beloved patrons–Happy Reading!

Welcoming the Spring

“Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad – when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel…It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.”

(Bram Stoker, Dracula’s Guest)

It’s an auspicious time, beloved patrons, especially for those who delight in dark stories, things that go bump (or worse) in the night, and those who believe in the power of the unseen.  Let’s take a look at some of the feasts and holidays being celebrated over the course of this week, and some of the reading you can do to learn more!

Walpurgisnacht

Image result for walpurgaOn the night before the first of May, people in European countries including the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia observe Walpurgisnacht, which is the eve before the Feast of Saint Walpurga (pictured at left), an 8th century British abbess who traveled to what is now Germany as a missionary.  Walgpurga was renowned for her medical abilities, and her abbey in Germany was considered “a center of culture” where people came to learn as well as to seek aid and spiritual guidance.  Following her death in 777, and subsequent  canonization, people prayed to Saint Walpurga to repel the effects of witchcraft on their bodies and their possessions.  On May 1, 870, her relics were relocated to Eichstätt, a town in the Bavarian area of Germany, and local stories note that miraculous cures were reported as her remains traveled along the route.  Over time, the evening before Walpurga’s feast day on May 1 was seen as the night when all the evil in the world had free reign–a time that ended with Walpurga’s Day.

That is why, when Jonathan Harker travels through Hungary to Romania in the opening chapters of Dracula, he sees bonfires burning, and is told to fear the things he may encounter in the darkness during his journey.  For more information on Dracula, and Bram Stoker’s study of the paranormal, the occult, and the superstitions that made up his classic novel–and plenty of other fascinating historical facts, too, check out Jim Steinmeyer’s Who Was Dracula?:  Bram Stoker’s Trail of Blood.

Beltane
Image result for BELTANE
Via North Edinburgh News, Credit: Jon Kendrew

In Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, the feast of Beltane (traditionally observed on or around May 1) marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.  Bonfires were lit to protect both the cattle and people from predators–both the animal and the supernatural kind.  Traditionally, all household fires would be extinguished, before being re-lit with sparks and flames from a Beltane fire, so that the house would also be protected, as well. There were also any number of rituals performed to keep the the aos sí, or the fairy folk, happy; from leaving out bowls of milk for them to sip on, to offering sacrifices and presents at fairy forts (areas that were believed to be inhabited by the aos sí, identified by natural oddities like a circle of rocks, trees, or a hill).

Angela Bourke’s The Burning of Bridget Cleary, a Free-For-All favorite, is a sensational historical account of the superstitions and folklore of nineteenth century Ireland.  It also tales the story of Bridget Cleary, the last women to be burned to death on the supposition that she was possessed by fairies.  The case is a fascinating one, that highlights the shifting ways of life in Ireland that was unsettling the population and individual families, as well.  For those looking for fiction, Hannah Kent’s The Good People offers a similar insightful look into the power of superstition and stories on Irish women.  This novel is based on a true account of the death of a child in Ireland in the 1820’s–again, fairy possession was believed to be the cause of the child’s affliction.  Kent’s story is an unsettling, troublingly honest look at life in a rural community, the pain of loss, and the damage of distrust that blends real historical detail with modern day empathy to make for an unforgettable story.

May Day
Image result for may day maypole
Via The Independent UK

In much of the northern hemisphere, May 1 is known as May Day, a traditional spring holiday when winter is officially banished and the promise of a long growing season is welcomed.  Originally a pagan holiday to celebrate the change of seasons, May Day became a secular celebration that was observed by dancing around a May pole.  Nevertheless, plenty of rituals still exist around this day that harken back to the superstitions and supernatural powers of old.  May Day was associated with fears of butter stealing. Cows were safe-guarded by attaching flowers around their heads;  sometimes red ribbons or bits of rowan were tied to their tails. This was believed to offer them protection from the malign glance of those with the evil eye. The churn was especially vulnerable at this time so often similar items or iron objects were placed underneath it.  Similarly, crowns of flowers were woven for children to keep them safe, and flowers were laid on doorsteps to keep the evil eye from falling on one’s house.

The Arrival of Missives

A wonderful book that captures the promise and mystery of May Day is Aliya Whiteley’sThe Arrival of Missives (available through the Boston Public Library). In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as predictable as the changing of the seasons.  As the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future will be reborn again, Shirley encounters Mr. Tiller, a scarred war veteran, whose arrival in her life will change her world as profoundly as spring changes the world around her.  This dreamy, surprising little story is a perfect read for a lazy spring afternoon.

 

So, happy spring, dear readers, no matter how you chose to celebrate it!