Tag Archives: History!

Breaking News…some 400 years in the making…

Oh, these are amazing times in which we live, beloved patrons!

First off, last year, we had the discovery of the HMS Terror, one of the ships in the doomed Franklin Expedition.  Sire John Franklin and his crew had been determined to discover the Northwest Passage (the sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific), but the ship foundered in heavy weather and was abandoned, along with the HMS Erebus.  All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, but, though 11 search parties were sent to find any trace of the party or their ships, nothing was heard of the Franklin Expedition…except for a number of stories from local Inuit and Inuk tribes, which went largely overlooked for years and years.   But last year, after finally paying appropriate attention to the Inuit tales, both ships were discovered, giving us a wealth of new insight into the last days of the expedition (and proving, once again, that we should listen to others).

And just this past week, we learn that the Voynich Manuscript–a book that has literally defied all attempts at decoding or translation for the past 400 years may very well have been decoded.  

The Voynich Manuscript has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century, but was named after Wilfrid Voynich, a Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912.  There are a number of pages visibly missing from the book, but the 240 pages that remain are covered in a previously unidentified script that runs left to right across the page.  There are some words and phrases scattered throughout the book in Latin, but, because hand-written manuscripts are notoriously challenging to read, even figuring out some of these words have proven difficult.  There are also a bunch of hand-drawn illustrations that seem as random and confusing as the text, though that is largely, I think, because they appear out of context).  Code-breakers who worked during the First and Second World Wars tried parsing the manuscript without success.  Expert cryptanalysts since have tried to read the manuscript–without success.  In 1962, cryptanalyst Elizebeth Friedman described any attempts to read the book as “doomed to utter frustration”.  There have been a number of guesses made about what the book was supposed to convey, with most people pretty convinced that it was meant to be pharmacopoeia (a book with recipes for medicines) or a medical guide of some sort.  But no one was sure.  Until, perhaps, now.

According to history researcher and television writer Nicholas Gibbs, who declared in The Times Literary Supplement last week that he had solved the riddles of the Voynich Manuscript, the book is a treatise on women’s health.  Using both textual analysis and a study of the illustrations (specifically, the well-known image of a group of women bathing), Gibbs eventually realized what he was looking at.  To quote from the TLS piece:

All the detail and objects depicted in such manuscripts are salient points picked out from a story. Abstract and perhaps unrecognized at first, they can suddenly surprise as a narrative comes into focus. Artists who illustrate instruction manuals – for that is what the Voynich manuscript is – are naturally economical and only provide detail where necessary. In the Voynich manuscript, the same object – an oversized doughnut with a hole and a carbuncle attached to its side – is proffered by several of the unclothed women. Its significance only became apparent when, as I was casually leafing through a medical-related book…I came across the doughnut object depicted as a lodestone (natural magnet).  […]

By now, it was more or less clear what the Voynich manuscript is: a reference book of selected remedies lifted from the standard treatises of the medieval period, an instruction manual for the health and wellbeing of the more well to do women in society, which was quite possibly tailored to a single individual. The script had hitherto proved resistant to interpretation and presented several hurdles….I recognized at least two of the characters in the Voynich manuscript text as Latin ligatures, Eius and Etiam. Ligatures were developed as scriptorial short-cuts. They are composed of selected letters of a word, which together represent the whole word, not unlike like a monogram. An ampersand is just such an example….It became obvious that each character in the Voynich manuscript represented an abbreviated word and not a letter.

The bathing ladies from the Voynich Manuscript

Seriously, all, this is a really remarkable article, and, if it is true (and I have no reason to doubt at this point in time that it is not true), an incredible, momentous moment in the history of books, of codes, and of human enterprise.

If you’re interesting in learning more about the Voynich Manuscript, or the Franklin Expedition, or some other unsolved (for now!) mysteries, have a look at these titles:

The Friar and the CipherLawrence and Nancy Goldstone are well-known book collectors, and have written several books together about the history of the book–and the history of the Voynich Manuscript, in particular.  This book claims that that Roger Bacon, a thirteenth-century astronomer, wrote the Manuscript, and while that part may now be up for debate, their history of the text, and of its life after being purchased by Voynich is a fascinating, well-researched, and surprisingly exciting account that will really drive home how remarkable the Voynich Manuscript truly is, to literary types, as well as code-breakers and historians.

Ice Ghosts : The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition: journalist Paul Watson, was on the icebreaker that led the expedition that discovered the HMS Erebus in 2014, and he broke the news of the discovery of the HMS Terror in 2016.  This book is not only a gripping travel narrative of the hunt to find the HMS Terror, but it’s also a great history of the Franklin Expedition, as well as the Inuit stories that helped locate the ships.  This blend of technological innovation and oral history make this a book for history buffs, techno-wizards, and treasure-seekers alike, and is an excellent choice for any armchair explorers looking for a new polar expedition.

Lost City of Z: Even if you saw the motion picture based on this story, you should read the book by David Grann, which not only tells the story of Sir Percy Fawcett’s fascination with the Amazon and its secrets, but also of Grann’s own adventures into “the green Hell”.   In 1925, the legendary British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured into the Amazon jungle, in search of a fabled civilization, never to return.  Though Grann claims to have ‘solved’ the story of Fawcett’s final expedition, the real power of this book lies in the enduring mystery of the Fawcett’s legacy.

Codebreaker : the history of codes and ciphers, from the ancient pharaohs to quantum cryptographyStephen Pincock’s book is not only a history of how humans have made and broken codes, but also focuses on those that haven’t yet been broken…including the Voynich Manuscript.  From the Beale Code to the mysteries of Easter Island, this book is ponderous at times in the amount of information it contains, but is all the more fun, ultimately, because of it, as it helps not only in cracking codes, but in helping readers appreciate the effort and intellect that goes into creating and cracking them!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy 19th Amendment Day!  On this date in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, making it illegal to deny any citizen the right to vote on the basis of sex.  Though it was the culmination of the first wave of feminism in the United States, it was by no means the end of the fight for voting rights–for example, the 19th Amendment did not extend to the US territory of Puerto Rico, and women who could read and write were only allowed to vote in 1929 (the franchise would be extended to all women in Puerto Rico in 1935).  The 19th Amendment also only applied to the Federal government, and many states and citizens took it upon themselves to prevent many from casting their votes.

New York Suffrage Parade, courtesy of The National Archives

Nevertheless, the adoption of the 19th Amendment remains a watershed moment in American history, and the culmination of a grass-roots movement that brought women across the country–indeed, across the world–together to fight for their rights as citizen.

You can learn much more about this history here at the Library.  Or, you could come check out some of these titles that have sprung up onto our shelves this week, and are eager to share this (potentially dreary) weekend with you!

The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year That Changed Literature:  Willa Cather wrote that the world “broke in two” in 1922 “or thereabouts”–and, speaking in literary terms, she was rather spot-on.  That year, James Joyce published Ulysses, a book that was already having profound effects on the way people thought of the novel.  T.S. Eliot also published The Waste Land, a poem that deals intimately with brokenness.  These works, and the others discussed in Bill Goldstein’s new work, would give structure and definition to the emerging modernist movement.  Though it had begun in the years before the First World War, and developed in the trenches and hospitals by those seeking for a way to describe the indescribable, as Goldstein shows, modernism got its definition and its shape in 1922, thanks to the works, the personal experiences, and the hardships of Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence, all over the span of one seminal year.  But while this book is certainly about literature, it’s also about the lives of these remarkable writers.  As NPR explains, “In letting these four writers speak in their own words―their own witty, gossipy, often waspish words―Goldstein…sacrifices historical sweep and gravitas for something much more grounded and intimate. In his hands, these literary lions prove surprisingly―and bracingly―catty.”

The Amber Shadows: Lucy Ribchester’s second book is an historic, psychological thriller that has critics and readers alike raving.  We open in 1942 at Bletchley Park, where Honey Deschamps sits at her type-x machine, tediously transcribing decrypted signals from the German Army, doing her part to assist the British war effort.  Leningrad is under siege, and some of the world’s most important art work, from paintings to the fabled Amber Room, is in threat of being destroyed.  As reports begin filtering into Bletchley Park about the stolen loot, Honey receives a mysterious package, hand-delivered from a man that she has never seen before who claims that he works at the Park as well. The package is postmarked from Russia, and inside is a small piece of amber. It is just the first of several such packages, and when she examines them together she realizes that someone, relying on her abilities to unravel codes, is trying to tell her something.  Is Honey being tested?  Is someone at Bletchley Park trying to use her?  Or has she unwittingly become a part of something much, much bigger?  Ribchester is a marvel at weaving a suspenseful plot that keeps both the characters and readers on the most perilous of edges, and for all that her book is a send-up of the wartime spy novel, it’s also a beautiful addition to the genre, and earned a ‘Pick of the Month’ rating from Library Journal, calling it “a fascinating historical mystery that explores issues of secrecy, trust, and families but never impedes the element of almost Hitchcockian suspense. A sure-bet for fans of the PBS series The Bletchley Circle, Susan Elia MacNeal’s “Maggie Hope” series, and Rhys Bowen’s In Farleigh Field.”

When the English Fall: Yes, this book is about life after a solar storm initiates the collapse of modern civilization, but the apocalyptic novel has been getting more and more elevated and thought-provoking recently, and this book is far less a science fiction work than it is a study of humanity itself.  When the solar storm began, the Amish community in which Jacob lives was able to endure unaffected.  But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) in the cities become increasingly desperate, they begin to invade nearby farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the gentle communities.  This book is Jacob’s diary, written as he tries to protect his family from the encroaching, and increasingly violent, strangers, as he wrestles with how to remain peaceful in a world that has grown so alien, and what survival in such times really means.  Critics have been lining up to praise this work, and it’s already been celebrated as one of the best books of 2017, with Kirkus giving it a starred review and praising it as “A standout among post-apocalyptic novels, as simply and perfectly crafted as an Amish quilt or table. Lyrical and weirdly believable.”

North Haven: Sarah Moriarty’s debut novel is set both close to home (on an island off the coast of Maine), but also deals with emotions, loyalties, and heartache that we all know well–what makes this book remarkable, however, is how she spins her tale.  It’s the Fourth of July, and it’s the Willoughbys’ first summer without their parents, in their crumbling house.  When a substantial offer is made on the estate, the two brothers and two sisters are forced to confront issues they had hoped to keep hidden, the secrets that lay scattered throughout their childhood, and the legacy of the parents they only now realize they may never have known at all.  Rich with scenic and personal details, this is a book that will envelope you from the first scene, and linger in your mind even after you’ve left.  Library Journal loved this book, saying in its review,  “A gifted author of singular talent, Moriarty has captured the unbearable rifts of a family under emotional stress. A magnificent debut.”

Goodbye, Vitamin: Another debut dealing with grief, yet Rachel Khong’s work is unique, utterly original–and surprisingly funny despite (and perhaps because of) it’s heavy subject matter.  Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town and arrives at her parents’ home to find that situation more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory and is only erratically lucid. Ruth’s mother, meanwhile, is lucidly erratic. But as Ruth’s father’s condition intensifies, the comedy in her situation takes hold, gently transforming her all her grief.   Told through Ruth’s diary entries, this book is both an oddball comedy and a poignant picture of families at their best and worst, that has earned rave reviews in publications across the board, from The Wall Street Journal to Entertainment WeeklyBuzzFeed was also among its biggest fans, calling it “one of those rare books that is both devastating and light-hearted, heartfelt and joyful, making it a perfect and unique summer read. Don’t miss it.”

 

As always, beloved patrons, Happy Reading!

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy Friday to you, dear readers!

As you’ll see from today’s Google Doodle, today is the 44th ‘birthday’ of Hip-Hop, a subculture and art movement developed by African-Americans and Puerto Ricans from the South Bronx in New York City.

Learn more at https://www.google.com/doodles/44th-anniversary-of-the-birth-of-hip-hop

On August 11, 1973 DJ Kool Herc was the DJ at his sister’s back-to-school party. He extended the beat of a record by using two record players, isolating the percussion “breaks” by using a mixer to switch between the two records. Herc’s experiments with making music with record players became what we now know as breaking or “scratching“.  His house parties soon gained wider popularity, moving to outdoor venues where more and more guests could hear his unique brand of music–and begin to create their own, establishing culture around hip-hop that not only provided a lot of young people an outlet for their energy and expression, but also gave a number of minority artists a voice to speak on social issues.

If you want to learn more about this fascinating and highly diverse art form, come check out some hip-hop recordings from the Library–or some books on its history and influence!

And speaking of books…here are just a few of the many new titles that sashayed up onto our shelves this week, and are eager to be part of your summer adventures!

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old: Any fans of A Man Called Ove should seek this book out immediately.  It’s another book that celebrates longevity, irresistibel humor, and the insight of the…vintage members of our community.  Hendrik Groen may be old, but he is far from dead and isn’t planning to be buried any time soon. Granted, his daily strolls are getting shorter because his legs are no longer willing and he has to visit his doctor more than he’d like. Technically speaking he is…elderly. But surely there is more to life at his age than weak tea and potted geraniums?  So sets out to write a shocking tell-all book about life in his Amsterdam nursing home, including his comrades in the the anarchic Old-But-Not-Dead Club. And when Eefje, Hendrik’s longtime, far-off love, moves in, he sets out to win her once and for all, with heartbreaking and hilarious consequences.  Though there may be some cultural differences between our world and Hendrik’s, as Publisher’s Weekly points out in its review, some things are universal.  As they put it: “Hendrik’s diary gives a dignity and respect to the elderly often overlooked in popular culture, providing readers a look into the importance of friendship and the realities of the senior care system in modern society.”

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek: Howard Markel is a medical historian, and since the Kellogg’s started out as homeopathic ‘health reformers’, he is in the perfect position to shed new light on these complex, dynamic…and surprisingly eccentric brothers.  The Kelloggs were of Puritan stock, but turned their back on their considerably large and wealthy) family in order to follow one Ellen Harmon White, a self-proclaimed prophetess, and James White, whose new Seventh-day Adventist theology was based on Christian principles and sound body, mind, and hygiene rules.  The Whites groomed the young John Kellogg for medical school, and together, he and his brother set out to cure the American malady of indigestion, experimenting with wheat, corn, malt, and eventually developing an easy-to-digest product known as “corn flakes” for their patients and consumers.  John Kellogg also opened world-famous Battle Creek Sanitarium medical center, spa, and grand hotel attracted thousands actively pursuing health and well-being.   This book is a fast-paced, well-researched, and highly entertaining trip through a cast of 19th century celebrities, industrialists, policy-makers, and the men who treated their guts.  Kirkus called it “Delightful . . . Markel refreshingly resists the temptation—not resisted by films and novels—to deliver caricatures . . . A superb warts-and-all account of two men whose lives help illuminate the rise of health promotion and the modern food industry.”

Drinks With Dead Poets: Glyn Maxwell is a both an acclaimed poet and a teacher, and this novel allows him to bring all his formidable talents to bear in a fascinating and joyful literary fantasy.  Poet Glyn Maxwell wakes up in a mysterious village one autumn day. He has no idea how he got there―is he dead? In a coma? Dreaming?―but he has a strange feeling there’s a class to teach. And isn’t that the poet Keats wandering down the lane? Why not ask him to give a reading, do a Q and A, hit the pub with the students afterwards?  Soon the whole of the autumn term stretches ahead, with Byron, Yeats and Emily Dickinson, the Brontës, the Brownings, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen, and many more all on their way to give readings in the humble village hall.  Though poetry and Brit-lit lovers are sure to devour this novel, there is plenty in here for those who haven’t discovered–or enjoyed–these authors previously.  It’s a big, beautiful, exuberant book about life, literature, love, and the wonder of teaching that earned a starred review from Booklist, who said “This novel packs so much truth and so many conspicuously educational moments―along with character studies of 12 major nineteenth-century poets and writers―that it defies classification. An intoxicating blend of fiction, memoir, and literary criticism.”

Drunks: An American History: Though the title of Christopher M. Finan’s work sounds flippant, his subject matter–the cultural history of alcoholism and sobriety in the United States–is really quite a serious, and a seriously overlooked, one.  From Native Americans whose interactions with European settlers led to a new and problematic relationship with alcohol to John Adams, who renounced his son Charles for his inebriation, to Carry Nation, who destroyed bars with a hatchet out of fury for what alcohol had done to her family, to Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, who helped each other stay sober and created Alcoholics Anonymous together, this book reframes the American experience as one constantly searching for liberation from vices of its own making.  Well-researched and well-told, this is a book that sheds light on a number of unsing heroes and nearly-forgotten struggles that deserve to be told.  Publisher’s Weekly agrees, calling it “An appropriately harrowing account of booze and its discontents…A worthy treatment of recovery movements in American history, unsung heroes and all.”

Dead on Arrival: If you can stomach any more doomsday-type narratives, Matt Richtel’s newest release is turning a number of heads, and drawing comparisons with Michael Crichton and Stephen King to boot.  The story focuses on Flight 194, which lands in a desolate Colorado airport–and finds that everyone who wasn’t on board appears to be dead.  While they were in the air, a lethal new kind of virus surfaced, threatening mankind’s survival, and now Dr. Lyle Martin, a passenger on Flight 194, and once one of the most sought-after virologists on the planet—is at the center of the investigation.  This is a techno-thriller that not only dazzles with fancy-schmancy locales and high-end gadgets, but also takes into account our own dependence on digital wizardry…and turns it against us in some pretty interesting ways.  It’s earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, who enthused, “Richtel grabs his audience by the throat from the start of this intelligent nail-biter.”

Five Book Friday!

And a very happy one to you all!

Via Google.com

If you check out today’s Google Doodle, you’ll see today is the 100th anniversary of the Silent Parade, organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The Silent Parade was organized in protest of violence, including lynching, arson, and outages, against African Americans across the country, but it was the East St. Louis Race Riot, also called the East St. Louis Massacre, that brought the matter to a head. This horrific event drove close to six thousand blacks from their own burning homes and left several hundred dead.

The event itself was held in total silence, with nearly ten thousand Black women, men, and children marching down 5th Avenue and 57th Street to Madison Square Garden.  They carried signs and banners declaring the reasons for the march, and Black Boy Scouts handed out flyers to those watching that described the NAACP’s struggle against segregation, lynching, and discrimination, as well as other forms of racist oppression.

The event was a watershed moment in the long history of the Civil Rights Movement, and is deservedly celebrated today–and should be remembered much more often.  You can read more about the march and its legacy here.

And if that reading has got you wanting more words, then how about coming down to the Library and meeting these fine books–and others!–that have cavorted onto the shelves this week!

The Woman From Prague: Fans of Rob Hart’s Ash McKenna series will be delighted with the return of Ash, a sort of human wrecking-ball and amateur private investigator–and new readers will find just enough exposition here to be able to follow along.  Amateur private investigator Ash McKenna’s time is about to expire―on his visa, that is.  When we open, Ash is laying low in Prague, realizing his visa is about to expire and deciding on his next move–until a man named Roman appears, claiming to work for the U.S. government, and possessing intimate knowledge of Ash’s many sins.  Roman offers to protect him…in exchange for a favor: a bank employee named Samantha Sobolik is set to receive a package containing covert information in a handoff on the Charles Bridge. Ash must intercept the package, and deliver the contents to Roman–or else. But when Ash gets to the bridge, he discovers that the hand-off is actually a hit, and nothing about this plot is what he believed.  This story feel a bit like an early Die Hard movie, and the espionage elements are handled expertly, making this a superb series installment, and a novel that Publisher’s Weekly called “One of the best books of the summer…great pace, a fascinating relationship between the central characters, and superb atmosphere.”

Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge: As much a part of the New York skyline as the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge is instantly and internationally recognizable. Yet as iconic as it is, its builder, Washington Roebling, is too often forgotten. The Brooklyn Bridge took 14 dramatic years to complete and here the personal story which lies behind that construction is told for the first time.  Though it was his father that came up with the idea for the bridge, upon his death, Washington–a Civil War veteran who had constructed bridges to transport wounded soldiers–found himself in charge of the project.  Erica Wagner’s meticulously research biography not only helps us understand Washington Roebling, and the remarkable personal and professional accomplishments he achieved by breaking free of his tyrannical father’s legacy, as well as his incredible wife, Emma, who also gets her due in this work.  The Guardian appreciated this addition to the scholarship of Roebling, of New York, and of the Brooklyn Bridge itself, calling this work “Compelling and elegant . . . the story not just of two engineers, father and son, but also of a son who survived treatment that, as he wrote in a private memoir at the end of the 19th century, could have led to his death . . . [a] powerful book.”

Gather the Daughters: A bizarre, haunting, and beautiful described dystopian novel, Jennie Melamed’s debut is drawing comparisons to Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood–high praise indeed.  Years ago, just before the country was incinerated, ten men and their families colonized an island off the coast. Their society runs on ancestor worship, controlled breeding, and the strict.   Only chosen male descendants of those original settlers are allowed to cross to the wastelands and scavenge among the smoldering ruins.  Women serve as wives-in-training, forced to undergo a maturation ceremony and breed until they are no longer useful–at which point they take the “final drought” and die.  This is the world in which they live and die–until one young girl witnesses a shocking event too troubling to keep to herself.  When she tells her friends, each on the verge of maturity, what has happened, they launch a secretive crusade to discover the truth about their island, unraveling the secrets that have kept them all prisoner for so long.  For all the darkness in this story, there is a surprising lightness to Melamed’s writing, and a wildly defiant hopefulness throughout the text that elevates this story into something really remarkable.  RT Book Reviews agrees, noting that “Melamud creates characters so familiar that their story grows ever more believable, and their desperate fight for freedom that much more harrowing.  Though elements of this plot will be difficult for some readers, they are handled with grace and sensitivity throughout.”

The Women Who Flew For Hitler: Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented, courageous, and strikingly attractive women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. With the war, both became pioneering test pilots and were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. But they could not have been more different and neither woman had a good word to say for the other.  In this prize-winning biographic study, Clare Mulley uncovers these women’s lives, their remarkable aeronautic feats, and the experience of life within the Third Reich for those deemed elite enough to serve.  Mulley navigates this story beautifully, bringing Reitsch and Von Stauffenberg–and their lifelong feud–to life with care, compassion, and remarkable insight, creating a work that earned a starred review from Booklist, who raved “Mulley comes through in a major way with this deep dive into the lives of WW2-era German aviatrixes…Absolutely gripping, Mulley’s double portrait is a reminder that there are many more stories to tell from this oft-examined time.”

Moving Kings: Funny, frightening, moving, and timely, Joshua Cohen’s newest novel is being called a “Jewish Sopranos” for the modern era–a description that certainly got my attention.  He follows the life of two twenty-one-year-olds, Yoav and Uri, veterans of the last Gaza War, who have just completed their compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces.  Sent for a year of rest and recuperation, the two make their way to New York City and begin working for Yoav’s distant cousin David King—a Republican, and Jew, and the recently divorced proprietor of King’s Moving Inc., a heavyweight in the tri-state area’s moving and storage industries. As Yoav and Uri now must struggle to become reacquainted with civilian life, but it’s not easy to move beyond their traumatic pasts when their days are spent kicking down doors as eviction-movers–indeed, their jobs are oddly similar to their past employment…a job that quickly turns violent when they encounter one homeowner seeking revenge.  This book is generating some terrific reviews, including one from The Los Angeles Times, which called it, “Brilliant. . . . feels master-planned to slowly unsettle your convictions, as the best novels do. . . . Cohen has a brain-on-fire intellect and a Balzac-grade enthusiasm for understanding varieties of experience.”

Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!

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!

On Forgeries and Fakeries…

Last Friday, a major exhibition of the works of Amedeo Modigliani at the Doge’s Palace in Genoa announced that it would be closing early, after authorities confirmed that most of the paintings in the exhibit–21 out of 30, to be precise–were fakes.  

Via hyperallergic.com

As reported by the British newspaper The Telegraph, Carlo Pepi, a 79-year-old art critic, raised the alarm after seeing advertisements for the exhibit featuring a 1918 portrait titled “Marie, Daughter of the People.”

“My goodness, when I saw the poster of Marie and then looked through the catalogue and saw the others, I thought, poor Modigliani, to attribute to him these ugly abominations,” Pepi told The Telegraph.

Via telegraph.co.uk

I am fascinated bytale  art crimes.  I know that’s a weird thing to admit, but I do.  Maybe it’s the bizarre combination of ruthlessness and beauty that go into so many of these crimes.  Maybe it’s the dirty history behind images that we tend to take for granted–for example, Edvard Munch’s The Scream has been stolen twice, in outlandish circumstances…and recovered in operations just as over-the-top.  To be honest, I’m thoroughly enamored with the idea that you could get a job hunting these forgeries down, too.   Tales of the FBI’s Art Thefts department

It seems like the stuff of fiction–and yet the repercussions of art crime are international and unforgettable.  If you’ve ever been to the Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum, and looked at the empty frames that still hang on the wall in memory of the (still missing) paintings that were cut out of them, you know what a palpable loss those pieces still have (see image to left, via the New York Post).  For those who have lost, or found, pieces stolen by Nazi authorities or during the Stalinist purgers, the enormity of the crime committed cannot be contained in a frame.  Art speaks to us in a way that words and deeds cannot, and to rob someone of that is to rob them of their humanity.  It also robs humanity of some truly staggering works of genius as well–the number of pieces that now have dubious provenance (the official history of a painting that traces its whereabouts throughout its life) is enormous, and is ever-growing.

However, if you’re even in Vienna, check out the Fälschermuseum to learn how much fun fakeries can be.  This museum is dedicated to the history of fake art, forgeries, and art fraud, and, though small, provides a fascinating education on the hows and whys of fakes, as well as some of the incredible stories behind some of the world’s best fakes, and most oddly satisfying stories–like Tom Keating, who wrote notes on his canvas before painting over them so that when the painting was x-rayed, his forgery would be discovered.

Even better, if you don’t feel like leaving your armchair/couch/beach chair/office, then check out these fantastic books on art forgeries, fakeries, and the wild stories behind them in these books!

Provenance: Speaking of Modigliani forgeries….John Myatt is perhaps one of the 20th century’s most famous (and most prolific) art forgers, and his talents for visual mimicry are shocking (check out his website here!).  In 1986, trying desperately to stay financially afloat, Myatt advertised his talents in the hopes of painting a few copies for money.  Instead, he was contacted by con artist John Drewe, who embroiled Myatt in one of the biggest, most wide-ranging art frauds in history.  In the end, a Modigliani forgery played an enormous part in bringing Drewe’s scheme down, and though Myatt spent time in prison for his role in the con, his paintings are now some of the most highly-sought in Britain.  Laney Salisbury tells his and Drewe’s story with insight, wit, and a perfect sense of timing.  Though we as readers never lose sight of the gravity of the crimes being committed, the book still reads a lot like a crime caper, and provides an enormously entertaining education on the art world.

The Forger’s Spell: In 1945, Han Van Meegeren, a Dutch artist, was arrested and charged with collaborating with the enemy, for having allegedly sold a Vermeer painting to Nazi officer Hermann Goering.  Van Meegeren’s defense was a shocking one–the painting, he claimed, was not a Vermeer.  It was a Van Meegeren.  Moreover, he had traded the false Vermeer for 200 original Dutch paintings seized by Goering in the beginning of the war.  Van Meegeren was actually called upon to paint another forgery before the court before his story was believed, and Van Meegeren’s charge was reduced to forgery, for which he spent about a year in confinement.  In this engaging work, Edward Dolnick not only relates the story of the forgeries, but placed Van Meegeren’s work in the context of the Second World War, emphasizing what a dangerous game he was playing–and the real effects his actions had on the art world.  It’s an enlightening and tense story that will appeal to military historians as well as art lovers.  You can see Van Meegeren’s forgeries for yourself here .  If you like Dolnick’s writing, be sure to check out The Rescue Artistabout the theft and recovery of Munch’s The Scream, too!

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa: On August 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s most celebrated painting vanished from the Louvre. The prime suspects were as shocking as the crime: Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, young provocateurs of a new art. The sensational disappearing act captured the world’s imagination. Crowds stood in line to view the empty space on the museum wall. Thousands more waited, as concerned as if Mona Lisa were a missing person, for news of the lost painting.   Though she was recovered in Florence in 1913, R.A. Scotti emphasizes that still in the case still linger: Who really lifted Mona Lisa…and why?  This story is part mystery, part history (the case was one of the first to use modern forensic science and profiling), and part love story to Paris, the Louvre, and the art it holds, this is a really engaging look into the history of what has become the most famous painting in western culture.

Five Book Friday!

And a very joyous la fête du 14-juillet to you, beloved patrons!

Storming of The Bastile by Jean-Pierre Houël

July 14th is indeed the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, when, in 1789, some 950 inhabitants of Paris, who were opposed to Louis XVI and his conservative regime, gathered around the Bastille prison in the hopes of securing the cannon, gunpowder, and other weaponry being housed there.  Three of the crowd were sent into the prison to negotiate with the 32 guards who were posted inside, but after hours has passed, the crowd grew impatient, and began marching into the inner courtyard.  Panicked, the soldiers began shouting at the crowd to disperse, but in the confusion, their calls were mistaken as a welcome to enter.  Gunfire started (I couldn’t find an accurate assessment of who first opened fire), and the crowd quickly turned into a mob, while the handful of guards were reinforced with guards and cannon.  Fearing a massive loss of life, the Governor de Launay capitulated around 5:30pm, and the now-mob swept in to liberate the fortress.  Fearing reprisals at the hands of government, the citizens of Paris began building barricades in the streets and arming themselves, officially marking the battle lines of the French Revolution.

Claude Monet

The holiday, however, began in 1790, when a feast was held to celebrate peace and the unity of the French nation.  Another feast was held in 1878 to commemorate and celebrate the French nation–a celebration that was commemorated in the painting by Monet above–and was such a rousing success that the day was enshrined as a national holiday in 1880.  So you don’t have to wish anyone a “Happy Bastille Day”, or anything like that.  But you can come in and check out some of the wonderful new books that have pirouetted onto our shelves this week!

Why?: What Makes Us Curious: An astrophysicist himself, Mario Livio is fascinated by the mechanisms that make human curiosity–why we are more distracted by only hearing one side of a conversation, why we care about places and people and things we cannot see before us.  Why we invent thins. In order to attempt to answer these questions, Livio interviewed scientists, examined the lives of two of history’s most curious geniuses, Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman, and talked to people with boundless curiosity: a superstar rock guitarist who is also an astrophysicist; an astronaut with degrees in computer science, biology, literature, and medicine.   And in this enormously readable book, he concludes that there is no definitive scientific consensus about why we humans are so curious, or about the mechanisms in our brain that are responsible for curiosity–but doesn’t that just make you more curious in the end?  Livio’s work has earned praise from Nobel winners, scientists, and readers alike, with Kirkus Reviews calling this fascinating book “A lively, expert, and definitely not dumbed-down account of why we’re curious.”

The Reason You’re Alive: From the author who brought you the Silver Linings Playbook comes another fascinating tale that transforms a personal journey into some much, much bigger.  After sixty-eight-year-old Vietnam Vet David Granger crashes his BMW, medical tests reveal a brain tumor that he readily attributes to his wartime Agent Orange exposure. He wakes up from surgery repeating a name no one in his civilian life has ever heard–that of a Native American soldier whom he was once ordered to discipline, and whom David is now determined to track down and make amends.  As David confronts his past to salvage his present, a poignant portrait emerges: that of an opinionated and good-hearted American patriot fighting to stay true to his red, white, and blue heart, even as the country he loves rapidly changes in ways he doesn’t always like or understand. Through the controversial, wrenching, and wildly honest David Granger, Matthew Quick offers a no-nonsense but ultimately hopeful view of America’s polarized psyche that Publisher’s Weekly calls “Dark, funny, and surprisingly tender.”

Gork, the Teenage Dragon: With a title like this, how could you not resist a peek into Gabe Hudson’s debut novel?  Gork isn’t like the other dragons at WarWings Military Academy. He has a gigantic heart, two-inch horns, and an occasional problem with fainting. His nickname is Weak Sauce and his Will to Power ranking is Snacklicious—the lowest in his class. But he is determined not to let any of this hold him back as he embarks on the most important mission of his life: tonight, on the eve of his high school graduation, he must ask a female dragon to be his queen. If she says yes, they’ll go off to conquer a foreign planet together. If she says no, Gork becomes a slave.  In the course of his interactions with his fellow dragons, from the nerds to the jocks, from Dr. Terrible, the mad scientist to Metheldra, a healer specializing in acupuncture with swords, Gork begins to realize that his biggest weakness–that big heart of his–may just be the secret power he needed all along.  This is a delightful, silly, honest, and uplifting coming-of-age tale that will capture the hearts of readers of any age, and that Publisher’s Weekly hailed  as “Cleverly plotted and executed. . . . Gork’s amusing growing-up story unfolds in vignettes of encounters with various kooky fellow dragons. Throughout, Hudson makes…brilliant reflections on humans’ often reptilian behavior.”

Hannibal: If everything you know about Hannibal begins and ends with elephants, you are definitely not alone.  But thanks to Patrick Hunt’s insightful new biography, you can realize what an incredible tactician and leader Hannibal really was, and just what an impact he had during his life, even though he was by no means undefeated…or, indeed, successful.  Nevertheless, to this day Hannibal is still regarded as a military genius. Napoleon, George Patton, and Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. are only some of the generals who studied and admired him. His strategy and tactics are still taught in military academies. He is one of the figures of the ancient world whose life and exploits never fail to impress. Historian Patrick N. Hunt has led archeological expeditions in the Alps and elsewhere to study Hannibal’s achievements. Now he brings Hannibal’s incredible story to life in this riveting and dramatic book.  Though this is a book that will definitely appeal to military history buffs, Library Journal points out that “The military history is thorough and balanced. . . . Drawing on both ancient and modern scholarship, this book is accessible for the nonspecialist; military history buffs will enjoy.”

Live from Cairo: Another debut here, this one from Ian Bassingthwaighte, whose own work in refugee legal aid informs much of this story about an American attorney, a methodical Egyptian translator, and a disillusioned Iraqi-American resettlement officer trying to protect a refugee, Dalia, who finds herself trapped in Cairo during the turbulent aftermath of the January 25, 2011 revolution.  As these individuals come together, united to save Dalia, laws are broken, friendships and marriages are tested, and lives are risked—all in an effort to protect one person from the dangerous sweep of an unjust world.  Though very much a book of–and for–the times, Bassingthwaighte’s work is also a story about the human need to seek connections and hope in the darkest of moments, and the joys that can be found, even in the midst of tragedy and fear.   Kirkus gave this book one of its many starred reviews, saying “There are far too many great things about this book to list in this small space: the tension and energy of the plot…the richness and subtlety of detail in the writing…profoundly humanizing the global refugee crisis. Bassingthwaighte’s virtuoso debut deserves the widest attention.”

 

Until next week, beloved patrons, Happy Reading!