Tag Archives: History!

Five Book Friday!

And check out today’s Google Doodle, which celebrates our namesake, George Peabody!

Today is the 151st anniversary of Peabody receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States, given to a persons “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.”

Peabody’s impact has certainly been long-lasting.  Born into a poor family in South Danvers (what is now Peabody),  George Peabody knew need and hunger growing up, and was only able to attend a few years of schooling.  As a result, he was notoriously thrifty as an adult (both in his private life and with his employees), but was also a dedicated philanthropist.  He established the banking firm of “George Peabody & Company”, which evolved, eventually into the firm  JPMorgan Chase.  The fortune he made from that endeavor provided the capital which he used to make his enormous and lasting donations.

In the UK, Peabody established the Peabody Trust, which is still among London’s largest affordable-housing associations.  Here in the United States, Peabody largely focused on providing funds for public education.  In 1852, he donated $217,000 to establish the Peabody Institute in his home town (that’s us!), and four years later, he donated $100,000 to the Peabody Institute in Danvers (they of the stunning building near the duck pond in Danvers).  In today’s currency, those donations are the equivalent (approximately) of $6.8 million and $2.85 million.  Ten years later, he donated the funds to build Georgetown’s public library (hello, Georgetown friends!) in honor of his mother.  He also established the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem, Massachusetts, which we know today as the Peabody Essex Museum.

Peabody also donated $3.5 million to establish the Peabody Education Fund in 1867 to provide educational funds for the children of the south following the Civil War (in today’s currency, that $3.5 million would be approximately $56,455,000).  The city of Baltimore, where Peabody enjoyed his first financial success, also benefited: The Peabody Institute in Baltimore (today known as the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University,) is the oldest conservatory in the U.S.   Today’s Google Doodle was actually created by students at George Peabody Elementary School in San Francisco, California, another site of George Peabody’s remarkable legacy.

So what better way to honor our namesake than with a selection of some of the book that have scurried onto our shelves this week, and are eager to make your acquaintance!


Happiness:  Aminatta Forna’s newest novel has been compared by some to The Remains of the Day, but her London-based novel is a wholly original tale that highlights the small moments and intimate connections that make us who we are.  A fox on a bridge causes two pedestrians to collide―Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech.  Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver a keynote speech on trauma, as he has done many times before; and to contact the daughter of friends, his “niece” who hasn’t called home in a while. The daughter, Ama, has been swept up in an immigration crackdown, and now her young son Tano is missing.  When Attila runs into Jean again, she mobilizes the network of rubbish men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. Security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens―mainly West African immigrants who work the myriad streets of London―come together to help. As the search for Tano continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds, leading Attila to reconsider his own concepts about trauma, and the connections to the world around him.  This is a book that deals with difficult issues with dignity and grace, and weaves a tale that earned a starred review from Booklist, who explained, “The overarching message tucked into Scottish and Sierra Leonian writer Forna’s quietly resonant novel is this: Every living thing is the net sum of its history, and we carry the weight of our past on our shoulders…Forna’s novel is ultimately a mesmerizing tale studded with exquisite writing.”

Green SunThose of you loving the ’80’s nostalgia that is seeping into tv and literature lately will love this newest release from fan-favorite Kent Anderson.  It’s 1983 in Oakland, California, and Officer Hanson, a Vietnam veteran, has abandoned academia for the life-and-death clarity of police work, a way to live with the demons that followed him home from the war.  But Hanson knows that justice requires more than simply enforcing the penal code.  He believes in becoming a part of the community he serves–which is why, unlike most officers, he chooses to live in the same town where he works. This strategy serves him well…to a point. He forges a precarious friendship with Felix Maxwell, the drug king of East Oakland, based on their shared sense of fairness and honor. He falls in love with Libya the moment he sees her, a confident and outspoken black woman. He is befriended by Weegee, a streetwise eleven-year-old who is primed to become a dope dealer.  Every day, every shift, tests a cop’s boundaries between the man he wants to be and the officer of the law he’s required to be.  At last an off-duty shooting forces Hanson to finally face who he is, and which side of the law he belongs on.  Anderson has the ability to tell a difficult story with compassion, and this tale is no less gripping for its fundamental humanity.  NPR agrees, noting in its review Green Sun succeeds on so many levels, it’s hard to keep count. . . . Hanson is a fascinating and memorable character, but the real star of Green Sun is Anderson’s writing. . . . Anderson is adept at finding a terrible kind of beauty in the worst circumstances, which makes Green Sun difficult to put down even when it’s emotionally painful to keep reading. Above all, it’s a stunning meditation on power, violence and the intractability of pain, which Anderson seems to understand all too well.”

The Chalk Man: Another ’80’s nostalgia novel here, but C.J. Tudor’s debut is a taut psychological thriller that has, apparently, kept a number of respected authors awake with its chilling premise.  In 1986, Eddie and his friends are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code: little chalk stick figures they leave for one another as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing is ever the same. In 2016, Eddie is fully grown, and thinks he’s put his past behind him. But then he gets a letter in the mail, containing a single chalk stick figure. When it turns out that his friends got the same message, they think it could be a prank –until one of them turns up dead.  That’s when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.  Full of flash-backs, twists, and revelations about its characters that will linger long after the final page, this is a book that Kirkus noted  will speak to fans “of the kids of Stand by Me and even IT…[the] first-person narration alternates between past and present, taking full advantage of chapter-ending cliffhangers. A swift, cleverly plotted debut novel that ably captures the insular, slightly sinister feel of a small village. Children of the 1980’s will enjoy the nostalgia.”

The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-First CenturyIn the late thirteenth century, Marco Polo began a decades-long trek from Venice to China. The strength of that Silk Road—the trade route between Europe and Asia—was a foundation of Kublai Khan’s sprawling empire. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the Chinese regime has proposed a land-and-maritime Silk Road that duplicates exactly the route Marco Polo traveled.  In opening of this enlightening anthology, an essay recently released by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, Robert D. Kaplan lays out a blueprint of the world’s changing power politics that recalls the geo-politics late thirteenth century.  Drawing on decades of firsthand experience as a foreign correspondent and military embed for The Atlantic, as well as encounters with preeminent realist thinkers, the essays in this book offer timely and insightful commentary on the role of the United States in the world that considers both where we’ve been, and some suggestions as we move forward.  Kirkus Reviews gave this collection a starred review, calling it a “Thoughtful, unsettling, but not apocalyptic analyses of world affairs flow steadily off the presses, and this is a superior example. . . . Presented with enough verve and insight to tempt readers to set it aside to reread in a few years.”

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South:   In 1990, Levon Brooks was arrested for the mrape and murder of a three-year-old girl in rural Mississippi.  Two years later, Kennedy Brewer was arrested and accused of killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter.  Both men waited two to three years in prison before their trial, and together, they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.  In this haunting work of investigative non-fiction, Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington recount the story of how the criminal justice system allowed two innocent men to be convicted of these crimes, and how two men, Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West, built successful careers on the back of that structure. For nearly two decades, Hayne, a medical examiner, performed the vast majority of Mississippi’s autopsies, while his friend Dr. West, a local dentist, pitched himself as a forensic jack-of-all-trades. Together they became the go-to experts for prosecutors and helped put countless Mississippians in prison. But then some of those convictions began to fall apart.  This is a book about justice, and how the courts and Mississippi’s death investigation system–a relic of the Jim Crow era–failed to deliver it for its citizens. The authors argue that bad forensics, structural racism, and institutional failures are at fault, raising sobering questions about our ability and willingness to address these crucial issues. Publisher’s Weekly gave this troubling, fascinating work a starred review, calling it “A clear and shocking portrait of the structural failings of the U.S. criminal justice system… This eminently readable book builds a hard-to-ignore case for comprehensive criminal justice reform.”


Until next week,  beloved patrons: Happy Reading!

International Women’s Day!

Today we revisit a post from last year that look at the history of International Women’s Day!

New York, 1908

Some sources cite the first ‘Women’s Day’ as taking place in 1908 when 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York in support of shorter hours, better pay and voting rights, but one year later, in 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared a National Women’s Day on Sunday, February 28–the day was specifically chosen to allow even working women to participate (and let’s just remember here that a Socialist party is not a Communist party, and the goals of one are by no means the goals of the other).  And one year after that, and the second International Conference of Working Women. which was held in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin of Germany suggested an International Women’s Day. The day, as she proposed, would be recognized in every country, to advocate for issues critical to all women.   The next International Women’s Day, in 1911, was recognized by nine countries.

In 1913, the Russian Socialist Party moved the celebration to March 8, the day on which it is still observed today.  During the First World War, women’s work in international pacifist organizations used this day to promote work across borders and above international hostilities to make life better for human people everywhere. Though they didn’t bring the war to an end (though not through lack of trying), in 1917, women in Russian went on strike with a message of “peace and bread”–and four days later, the Tzar abdicated, signaling an end to Russia’s involvement in the First World War.

Bread and Peace Strike, Petrograd, 1917

Though the UN officially recognized IWD in 1975, it hasn’t been a big thing for quite some time…..until, in 2011, President Barack Obama declared March ‘Women’s History Month’, and the nine countries around the world that first celebrated IWD developed national programs to promote education and opportunities for young women.  This year, IWD will be celebrated in the following countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

So what can you do to celebrate?  If you want to go big, pledge to support the equality of human life worldwide by sponsoring universal education and access to fundamental resources.  And then do something about it.  Teach a kid to read.  Donate to a local charity.  Tell a young person in your life, regardless of gender, that their contribution to the world is important.  Listen more.
And then, come into the Library and check out some books that have been selected from around the world for this year’s International Women’s Day!

From London’s Evening Standard:

The Handmaid’s TaleMargaret Atwood:
Set in the near future, Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel follows the story of Offred, a young handmaid to a powerful commander, who is a lynchpin in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable. What unfolds is a story of female subjugation at the hands of a male dictatorship, and the desperate hope of a young woman who clings to the memories of her former life and identity. As unpleasant as it is brilliant, this cruel and bone-chilling story will stay with your for the rest of your life – not just because it’s terrifying, but because it’s terrifyingly possible. 

From Australia’s Reading Australia:

Lilian’s Story by Kate Grenville:
Lilian Singer was born in 1901, a time when the education of women was considered unnecessary, even dangerous. Intelligent, resilient, and with a burning desire for independence, Lilian rejects the life deemed “acceptable” by society. Instead, she becomes an eccentric – energetic, happy and true to herself. This story is all the more captivating for being inspired by the real-life Bea Miles, a familiar figure to Sydney-dwellers, who lived on the streets and recited Shakespeare in exchange for money.

From TheCultureTrip:

A Woman in the Crossfire : Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek
Samar Yazbek’s writing takes many different forms: novels, short stories, cultural criticism and scripts fill her résumé, and she has even been responsible for editing a feminist e-zine, entitled Women of Syria. What unites all of her writing is a deep-seated political and social awareness and engagement with contemporary issues, which she weaves throughout her work. Her most recent work A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution (2012) is a brutal account of her involvement in the protests against the Assad regime, before her eventual escape and exile to Paris. The book was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize, awarded yearly to an international writer who has been persecuted for their work.

In a survey by The Guardian on their readers’ favorite books by women:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah has moved me like no other in recent memory…It’s an honest book about race, identity and the constant longing and nostalgia one feels for this metaphorical place called home…Reading this has made me realise that some of the most powerful narratives in contemporary fiction have been written by young, highly educated female African writers, who are tired of the old clichés frequently bandied around about Africa. Ngozi Adichie is a new, powerful and incredibly talented voice; her novel Americanah is the expression of a different African tale, of a continent and its people that have many more magnetic stories to tell, as well as critiques to raise about the so-called enlightened West.”

From the Center for Southeast Asia Studies:

Soul survivors : stories of women and children in Cambodia by Carol Wagner
Soul Survivors gives voice to women and children in Cambodia who survived the genocide (1975 – 1979), when nearly two million people died from execution, starvation, or disease. Through their detailed personal stories, fourteen people reveal the brutality of Pol Pot’s regime, how they managed to survive, and what it took to rebuild their lives afterward. This new edition is updated and contains recent historical events and an epilog telling what happened to the survivors since the first edition was published in 2002. It also includes information about the two charitable humanitarian organizations (friendshipwithcambodia.org and artinabox.org) the author and photographer were inspired to create to help the poor in Cambodia.

From SugarStreetReview:

Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar
The elder stateswoman of Francophone literature, Djebar is one of the most distinguished writers in the Arab world, although she herself comes from the Algeria’s significant Berber minority.   Djebar, whose real name is Fatima-Zohra Imalayène, has written about the role and repression of women in Algeria in many of her novels and says “Like so many other Algerian women authors, I write with a sense of urgency against misogyny and regression.” …A number of her novels have also been translated into English from the French, and all are more than deserving of your time. We particularly recommend Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, if you can rustle up a copy from somewhere.

From Msafropolitan:

Part of My Soul Went With Him by Winnie Mandela:
For insight into the life of one of the most revolutionary, African female figures of our times, this semi-autobiographical book is a must read. Winnie has achieved more for Africans, female and male; and for women, of all ethnicities, than others could dream of. Her life is one full of sacrifices, personal and political, and yet one gets the sense that if she were to choose, she would do it all over again. Through the collection of conversations, letters, supplementary speeches and anecdotes, it becomes clear exactly how much in debt we are to her.

In solidarity, readers.  Happy International Women’s Day!

“But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you…”

We’ve made it a bit of a Valentine’s Day tradition here at the Free For All to share with you some literary love letter (or love letters from the literary) as our contribution to your Valentine’s Day celebrations.  This year, we bring you a brief correspondence from the long relationship between novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

The beautiful relationship between Virginia and Vita began in December 1922, when Vita was invited to a dinner party at Virginia’s house, and continued to grow and develop over the course of nearly twenty years.  It would appear that there was an immediate affinity between the two women that would develop in the coming weeks and years into a force that would change them both for the better.

Vita and Virginia, via Letters of Note: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/06/a-squeal-of-pain.html

Despite the class and age differences between the two women (when they met, Vita was 30 and Virginia nearly 40), they had far more in  common that it might at first appear: both women suffered from sheltered upbringings and emotionally distant parents, and both embodied identities that went beyond traditional heterosexuality, though the language was not readily available to help them identify at the time.  Both women were married to men, but both experienced emotional and sexual relationships outside of their marriages.  As Vita’s son wrote years later of the two women and their marriages:

Their marriages were alike in the freedom they allowed each other, in the invincibility of their love, in its intellectual, spiritual and non-physical base, in the eagerness of all four of them to savour life, challenge convention, work hard, play dangerously with the emotions — and in their solicitude for each other.

They were also both devoted writers; it was, perhaps, a test of their friendship that they didn’t see eye-to-eye in terms of literary matters, but still supported each others’ literary endeavors whole-heartedly.  Vita chose to publish her books with Hogarth Press, the publishing company that Virginia and her husband founded, and the revenues from those books allowed Virginia the financial freedom to publish her more experimental works, such as The Waves.

Via Brakinpickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/07/28/virginia-woolf-vita-sackville-west/

Vita was also instrumental in helping Virginia come to terms with herself and her past.  As their friendship developed, Virginia confided in Vita that she had been abused by her step-brother as a child, and Vita became instrumental in helping her work to heal those wounds and accept herself.  Moreover, Virginia’s father had diagnosed her as ‘nervous’ as a child, and stated that writing would only result in a breakdown.  Virginia grew up obsessed with physical fitness, believing it was the only key to remaining healthy.  Vita was the first person to encourage her writing and her self-esteem, urging her to see that her writing came from strengths, rather than being a source of weakness.  The results were truly moving.  While they were traveling in Paris, Virginia purchased a mirror, saying she felt she could look in a mirror for the first time in her life.

Years later, Virginia would present Vita with her novel Orlando, a brilliant, satirical, and stunningly beautiful story about the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history.  The character of Orlando was based on Vita, and embodied not only her queer identity, but also her passion for life, her social skills, and the wicked sense of humor that both women shared.

According to some sources, the two ended their friendship over their views over the political decisions that led to the outbreak of the Second World War–Virginia was a staunch pacifist, while Vita supported German rearmament.  The love between them, however, endured.  After Virginia Woolf’s death by suicide in 1941, Vita’s friendship remained constant.  She wrote heartfelt condolence letters to Virginia’s husband and sister, commemorating Virginia’s individuality and spirit in a way that only someone who loved her profoundly could do:

The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her. … This is not a hard letter to write as you will know something of what I feel and words are unnecessary. For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish.

Here, we present a letter from Vita to Virginia, along with Virginia’s response, written while Vita was traveling in Italy.  This set of letters is beautiful, not only because it conveys their depth of their feelings for each other (and the pain that being separated caused them)–there are also some wonderful observations on the power of true love to cut through our façades and to see through our masks.  Their plain, honest admission of missing each other is in itself moving, but it’s also fascinating to see both women admit to not being able to pretend around each other.   That kind of inherent honesty is pretty rare in relationships, and it’s that beautiful honest that we celebrate today.


Those looking for more information on the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West should check out the recently-released book of their correspondence, as well as: Bloomsbury Women: Distinct Figures in Life and Art, and A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, & Virginia Woolf.  For more biographical and primary source references, check out:Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold NicholsonThe Letters of Virginia Woolf, and Virginia Woolf: A Portrait.

From Sackville-West to Woolf

Milan [posted in Trieste]
Thursday, January 21, 1926

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it …

Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter.



From Woolf to Sackville-West

52 Tavistock Square
Tuesday, January 26

Your letter from Trieste came this morning—But why do you think I don’t feel, or that I make phrases? ‘Lovely phrases’ you say which rob things of reality. Just the opposite. Always, always, always I try to say what I feel. Will you then believe that after you went last Tuesday—exactly a week ago—out I went into the slums of Bloomsbury, to find a barrel organ. But it did not make me cheerful … And ever since, nothing important has happened—Somehow its dull and damp. I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don’t believe it, you’re a longeared owl and ass. Lovely phrases? …

But of course (to return to your letter) I always knew about your standoffishness. Only I said to myself, I insist upon kindness. With this aim in view, I came to Long Barn. Open the top button of your jersey and you will see, nestling inside, a lively squirrel with the most inquisitive habits, but a dear creature all the same—

Note: Long Barn was the name of the country home that Vita Sackville-West and her husband owned in Kent.

Resolve to Read: Colonial or Postcolonial Literature

As we mentioned here previously, we here at the Library are Resolving to Read (more…different….) in 2018, and tackling both Book Riot’s and Scholastic’s 2018 Reading Challenges.  In the hopes of encouraging you to broader your literary horizons along with us, here are some suggestions for books that fall within the categories of the various challenges.

Today’s Challenge: Book Riot 2018 Read Harder Challenge
Category: A Work of Colonial or Postcolonial Literature

A British cartoon showing imperial officers sitting atop a throne of biscuit boxes, forcing native African to bow before them–an image that largely sums up the history of imperialism in Africa

First off, what precisely does “colonial literature” or “postcolonial literature” mean?  Book Riot tackled this question in their post on the subject, but I think we could get a little more nuanced in our discussion.  Typically, “colonial literature” refers to a work written during a period of time when one country was actively participating in the colonization or imperialistic exploitation of another geographic area.  For the record, colonization means that the imperial power sent its people to live in a different place (such as the British sending British people to live in South Africa or parts of what is now the United States), but there are many sites that experienced colonialism even if they were not formal colonies.  These include places like Puerto Rico, which is governed by the United States but not granted statehood, or Nigeria, which was largely ruled without British inhabitants, but was instead a site of palm oil extraction and cash-cropping.  Colonial literature is traditionally written by the colonizers–that is, the Europeans or Americans who held the power and engaged in the practice of colonizing or exploiting another geographic area.

To use an example: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a stunning, disturbing piece of Colonial Literature, because  it A) Takes place within a site of empire (Africa) B) Discusses the practices of imperialism (in this case, both the economic and the social aspects) and C) Does not discuss a world without empire.  Conrad isn’t making an argument that everyone would be better off without empire.  He is critiquing the process and commenting on its results, but his world is one where empires exist, without question.

It is in their definition of “Postcolonial Literature” that I really want to complicate things.  Typically, Postcolonial Literature is literature written after the period of direct colonization or imperialism ends, typically by a member of the colonized people.  That is, after a country has been declared independent by their imperial rulers–for example, Uganda was declared independent of Britain in 1962, while Algeria was declared independent of France in the same year.   But that doesn’t mean that any book written in Uganda or Algeria after 1962 (or any other site of empire) is a work of post-colonial literature.  Because, in fact, “postcolonial” refers not only to a moment in history, but to a way of thinking.  Postcolonial thinking is able to understand the abusive power relationship between the colonizer and the colonized and harm it does to both peoples within a historic context.

There are two big problems with the phrase “post-colonial”.  The first is that it implies to many that the “colonial” period ended.  While this may be true in practice, many sites around the world are still grappling with the trauma, the structural inequalities, the cultural ruptures, and social stigmas that colonialism and imperialism imposed on them.  The second problem with “post-colonial” is that is that it insists on a “colonial period.”  This phrase, first, subtly reinforcing that harmful power relationship by invoking it constantly.  A number of books written by authors from countries that were once colonies or sites of empire get labeled as “post-colonial” when they have nothing to do with the imperial relationship.  They get that label based on their country’s and people’s history.  For example, R. K. Narayan‘s novels set in South India deal very little at all with issues of empire or imperialism, yet are often put forward as “postcolonial works.”  And that is a unjust as the imperial project itself.  Second, a number of books that are considered “postcolonial” in their arguments and insight, were written during the actual period of empire, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  So we need to be careful with our use of the term “post-colonial” and make sure it applies to works that specifically address the problems and effects of imperialism.  These problems can be structural, political, personal, economic, cultural, or social.  But just because a book was written in India doesn’t make it a work of post-colonial literature.

As all these words might imply, fulfilling this part of the Book Riot challenge might not be easy, but it’s an incredibly impactful and eye-opening one.  The complex  issues of imperialism a very much still a part of our world and our lives, and literature allows us to access these issues in a deeply personal and meaningful way.  And, on top of that, there are some darned good books in these categories to be read!  So let’s get started…here are just a few recommendations to get you started on your exploration of colonial and post-colonial literature!

 Half a Yellow Sun : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s multiple-award-winning book is set in Nigeria years after independence, and deals with the conflict and violence that resulted from years of British interference in Nigeria, the struggle that many of the colonized people in Nigeria endured trying to relate to each other, and the way education systems in colonized sites isolate, differentiate, and, yet, offer the potential for colonized people to escape the hardship of their lives.  It’s a difficult, beautiful, intelligent, and eye-opening book that makes really big, political issues both understandably and movingly human.

Nervous Conditions:  Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel about two cousins growing up in Zimbabwe highlights the bizarre disparity between people depending on their relationship to imperial power, as well as the implicit misogyny inherent in imperial spaces.  In post-colonial Rhodesia (the name of the nation now known as Zimbabwe), Tambu, whose family is reeling from the death of her brother, is invited to her uncle house to attend school with her cousin, Nyasha.  The opportunity is a life-changing one, but, as Tambu will discover, is a dangerous one–especially for Nyasha, whose experience within the colonial school system is one of the most heartbreaking depictions of imperialism I can remember reading.

Passage to India: E.M. Forster’s novel is one that was, for years, considered a very early work of postcolonial fiction because it discusses the Indian independence movement, but recently, a number of readers and scholars have argued that Forester’s inability to escape his own European viewpoint makes it much more a colonial novel (which shows just how tricky this category can be!).  The story focuses on around four characters: Dr. Aziz, his British friend Mr. Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Adela Quested, and the alleged assault of Miss Quested by Dr. Aziz.  Dr. Aziz’s trial brings the racial tensions in India to a boil, and leaves all the characters forever changed.  This is a challenging book that, as mentioned, is still a hot topic of literary discussion today, making it all the more worth the read.

The Man Who Would Be King: Rudyard Kipling was an imperial supporter throughout his life, even if his support was a bit ambiguous and laced with criticism in some places.  Though Kim is probably his best known work of colonial fiction, this story really drives the hubris and absurdities of imperialism home in a story that is still exciting and unsettling to this day.  Told by an unnamed narrator (Kipling himself for all intents and purposes), the story focuses on two British adventurers,  Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who decide that India isn’t big enough for them, and set off to cheat and wheedle their way into becoming Kings of a remote area of Afghanistan (at that point a British protectorate).  Two years later, the narrator encounters Carnehan again, alone, and burdened not only with an incredible story, but with the crown that Dravot once wore on his head.  There is nothing very heroic at all about the two protagonists of this story, so don’t expect a heroic narrative here.  But it is emblematic, first of the kind of violence and arrogance that imperialism could inspire, and second of the kind of audacious, grand-narrative style fiction that was popular back home in England, that both made people frightened of natives while dreaming of conquering their land.

Re-Reading Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is an American federal holiday that is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around Dr. King’s birthday (which was January 15).  For those of you who enjoyed a day off in honor of this inspiring and intrepid American hero, we sincerely hoped you enjoyed the day.

But what–or, rather, whom–precisely, are we celebrating when we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day?  Yes, Dr. King was an American Baptist minister and one of the most visible spokespersons of the American Civil Rights Movement.  He is revered widely for his devotion to the practice of nonviolence and civil disobedience (refusing to recognize unjust laws, such as those preventing Black people from using public facilities and spaces that white people used).  Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we hear recordings of his “I Have A Dream Speech,” delivered at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, on August 28, 1963.  If you didn’t hear it, then here is a video below:


But it’s neither right nor fair to pretend that this speech, that this March, as fundamentally important as it was, is the only reason to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.   He was an anti-war activist, a religious leader, an advocate of education reform,  and a vocal advocate for the poor and in favor of class overhaul.  So we wanted to take a moment to provide you with some Library materials that can help you get to know more about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the movement he led, his comrades in that movement, and his legacy in American, and, indeed, world history.

In addition, we also highly recommend checking out these online syllabi compiled by the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement: http://www.blacklivesmattersyllabus.com

And this super-comprehensive syllabus, which includes videos, texts, and programs as well as texts, assembled by writer and public educator Candice Benbow: http://www.candicebenbow.com/lemonadesyllabus/

And don’t forget to check out these texts, as well!

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.: After King’s assassination in 1968, King scholar Clayborne Carson pulled together the civil rights leader’s many writings and speeches and organized them into an autobiographical form. It’s an unusual genesis for an autobiography, but one that pays thoughtful homage to the giant of American rhetoric.  These collected documents pay homage to all sides of King’s life, his religious philosophy, his harsh criticisms of American culture as well as his devotion to improving it in non-violent ways.  Anyone looking to understand the true, deep wisdom, anger, determination, and devotion of Dr. King should put this book at the top of their ‘To-Read’ List.

My Life, My Love, My Legacy: Without the work of Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., we would not have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In addition to preserving and defending her husband’s legacy, Coretta Scott King was also a fierce, determined activist in her own right, taking on the male hegemony of the Civil Rights Movement and championing civil rights causes including gay rights and AIDS awareness. She has also served as a UN ambassador and played a key role in Nelson Mandela’s election.  This book, told by Coretta Scott King to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, is the story of her early life, of her relationship with Martin Luther King Jr., and of her growth into a brave leader remained devoted to forgiving, nonviolent, and hope, even in the face of terrorism and violent hatred every single day of her life.  Honestly, if you read one book about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s legacy, make it this one.

Dear Martin: Nic Stone’s stunning novel not only offers a powerful portrayal of race relations in the United States today, but also questions the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, and Dr. King’s nonviolent theories.  Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates.  Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.  But when Justyce and his friend find themselves the victims of violent, brutal cruelty, it is up to him to find his way out alone.  The power of Stone’s work isn’t just in dealing with racism in a way that is both insightful and empathetic, but also in recognizing the way that racism as an institution affects People of Color and their relationships.  This isn’t an easy read by any stretch, but it’s a vital and a gripping one.

Jane Crow : the life of Pauli MurrayAt the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, alongside such leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, lawyer and activist Pauli Murray stood as an outspoken woman who protested discrimination on the basis of race and sex.  In 1963, she publicly condemned the sexism of the Civil Rights Movement, in her speech “The Negro Woman and the Quest for Equality”.  In 1964, just months after Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” she delivered a speech of her own in Washington, D.C., titled “Jim Crow and Jane Crow.”  In this speech, Murray emphasized that women’s rights needed to be part of the Civil Rights Movement.  Moreover, that women had been a part of the Civil Rights Movement from the very beginning, and deserved not only recognition, but a voice, and equality within the movement and the country.   In addition to helping found NOW (National Organization for Women), Murray was also a lawyer, a professor at Brandeis University, and was ordained as an Episcopal priest, making her among the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church.  This wonderful biography by Rosalind Rosenberg offers a poignant portrait of a figure who played pivotal roles in both the modern civil rights and women’s movements that shows the remarkable courage,  intellectual, and personal strength that all its leaders shared.

March: Book One, Two, and Three: Before he entered the United States Congress, Senator John Lewis was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, suffering police violence and the rage of many in his native Alabama who opposed the movement.  Lewis knew Martin Luther King Jr., and worked with him on actions as diverse as  nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins to the 1963 March on Washington.  These graphic novels are Lewis’ autobiography, from growing up on a share-cropping farm in Alabama to taking his seat in the US Senate, intended not only to share the story of the Civil Rights Movement with younger readers, but also to help them learn the practices and philosophy of non-violent protest so that they could become the leaders for the next generation.  These books are stunningly illustrated and enormously powerful, and have plenty to teach readers of any age group.


Please come into the Library to learn more about Dr. King, and all those people involved in the Civil Rights Movement and its ongoing legacy.

Five Book Friday!

And just a reminder, beloved patrons, we’ll be closed tomorrow in observance of Veteran’s Day.

As we’ve discussed, Americans have remembered those who served our country in uniform on November 11, first as Armistice Day, and then, since 1954 as Veterans Day.  The day itself commemorates the Armistice which ended hostilities on the Western Front of the First World War.

In honor of this day, here is a poem by American journalist and poet Carl Sandburg.  Though he did not serve in the First World War, Sandburg was nevertheless deeply affected by the violence, and anger, and the lasting trauma of the war on veterans and civilians alike.


There will be a rusty gun on the wall, sweetheart,
The rifle grooves curling with flakes of rust.
A spider will make a silver string nest in the
darkest, warmest corner of it.
The trigger and the range-finder, they too will be rusty.
And no hands will polish the gun, and it will hang on the wall.
Forefingers and thumbs will point casually toward it.
It will be spoken among half-forgotten, wished-to-be-forgotten things.
They will tell the spider: Go on, you’re doing good work.
(From Smoke and Steel, 1922)

We will be open on Sunday, so be sure to drop by and check out some of the new books that have scurried onto our shelves this week!  Here are just a sample:

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf: We are huge fans of Book Buddies here at the Library, as well as devotees of the authors listed in this book’s subtitle, so this was something of a natural choice for us.  We so often talk about the friendship and collaboration between male authors, but the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Co-authors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, highlighting centuries of literary friendship, collaborations, and inspirations between women, from  the friendship between Jane Austen and one of her family servants, playwright Anne Sharp, to the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Brontë; to Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, whose complex relationship has gone understudied for generations.  Using letters and diaries, some never before published, this book emphasizes the need–and the incredible results–of female friendships, in a book that Publisher’s Weekly called an ” evocative and well-researched ode to female solidarity…The authors…astutely explain that the friendships they depict became lost to cultural memory due to prevailing stereotypes of female authors as “solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses.” It is a delight to learn about them here, as related by two talented authors.”

Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror: Just in time for the centennial of the Russian Revolution comes Victor Sebestyen’s fascinating new biography (and the first in English in over two decades) of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik party. Brought up in comfort and with a passion for hunting and fishing, chess, and the English classics, Lenin was radicalized after the execution of his brother in 1887. Sebestyen traces the story from Lenin’s early years to his long exile in Europe and return to Petrograd in 1917 to lead the first Communist revolution in history.  With Lenin’s personal papers and those of other leading political figures now available, Sebestyen gives is new details that bring to life the dramatic and gripping story of how Lenin seized power in a coup and ran his revolutionary state. The product of a violent, tyrannical, and corrupt Russia, he chillingly authorized the deaths of thousands of people and created a system based on the idea that political terror against opponents was justified for a greater ideal.  Sebestyen also emphasizes Lenin’s relationships with women, bringing his sister, his mother, his wife, and him mistress into the historical picture in a way never before attempted.  The result is a book that earned a starred review from Kirkus, who called it, “An illuminating new biography of the cold, calculating ruler on whom the subsequent Soviet state modeled itself . . . Sebestyen ably captures the man, “the kind of demagogue familiar to us in Western democracies.” A compelling, clear-eyed portrait of a dictator whose politics have unfortunate relevance for today.”

The End We Start From: From a language-and-use perspective, Megan Hunter’s debut work of fiction inhabits a magical land somewhere between poetry and prose.  In terms of plot, this is an apocalyptic novel of hope.  It is a hauntingly beautiful look at the ugliness of a drowned world.  It is utterly bizarre, and it’s a marvel.  As London is submerged below floodwaters, a woman gives birth to her first child, Z. Days later, she and her baby are forced to leave their home in search of safety. They head north through a newly dangerous country seeking refuge from place to place. The story traces fear and wonder as the baby grows, thriving and content against all the odds. This book has earned glowing reviews, and both it and Hunter have secured spots on a number of best of lists, with The Guardian noting, “If motherhood now has its own literary subgenre, the same is true of climate-change catastrophe…Hunter sees both subjects afresh, through a sharp eye for detail that is both undeceived and faintly amused, and through the extreme spareness of her narration: the story proceeds in snatches, like a series of stepping stones across the blank expanse of an unknown future.”

To My Trans SistersDedicated to trans women everywhere, Charlie Craggs’ anthology represents an inspirational collection of letters written by successful trans women shares the lessons they learnt on their journeys to womanhood, celebrating their achievements and empowering the next generation to become who they truly are. Written by politicians, scientists, models, athletes, authors, actors, and activists from around the world, these letters capture the diversity of the trans experience and offer advice from make-up and dating through to fighting dysphoria and transphobia. By turns honest and heartfelt, funny and furious or beautiful and brave, these letters send a clear message of hope to their sisters, and also offer a world of insight to all readers on the nature of identity, the power of empathy, and the need to recognize all our fellow humans as people worthy of respect and love.  Library Journal gave this book a starred review, pronouncing it “A triumph in topics of gender and women’s studies, this anthology is unlike anything available today and is a must-have for those seeking to understand the trans community on a myriad of levels.”

The Big Book of Rogues and Villains: Anyone who enjoys themselves a richly nuances baddie is going to delight in this new collection from Otto Penzler, that brings together the iconic traitors, thieves, con men, sociopaths, and killers who have crept through the mystery canon over the past 150 years, captivating and horrifying readers in equal measure. The 72 handpicked stories in this collection introduce us to the most depraved of psyches, from iconic antiheroes like Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin and Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu to contemporary delinquents like Lawrence Block’s Ehrengraf and Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder.  With stories from Bram Stoker, R.L. Stevenson, Earl Stanley Gardener, as well as  less well-remembered writers like May Edginton, and George Randolph Chester, this is a delightful romp through some of the darker personas in fiction that is a blast for mystery readers and fans of character studies.  Publisher’s Weekly agrees, noting that “The fruits of Penzler’s decades of diligent study of the genre pay off handsomely in this fat volume.”


Until next week, beloved patrons, Happy Reading!

Five Book Friday!

And welcome to our first 5BF of November, beloved patrons!

via The Library of Congress

And speaking of November, don’t forget to set your clocks back an hour this Sunday, as it’s the end of Daylight Savings Time.  Though we all give Benjamin Franklin credit for coming up with the idea of Daylight Savings Time, there is a debate as to whether he meant the idea as a lighthearted jest more than a practical suggestion.  It was, in fact, Germany, under the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II during the First World War, which was the first country to adopt daylight saving time – or “fast time” as it was then called – as a means to minimize artificial lighting and save fuel for the war effort. The act was quickly followed in both Great Britain and France, where it was also credited with getting in an extra hour for cultivation of war gardens.  As this article in the Great Falls Tribune points out, the movement had something of a rocky start in the US:

The cause for turning the clocks back an hour in the United States was taken up by Pittsburgh industrialist Robert Garland. Garland successfully lobbied for the “Standard Time Act,” establishing that U.S. clocks be set back one hour between March 31 and Oct. 27.

The act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on March 19, 1918, but was repealed just seven months later. The war had ended, and nobody seemed to like the idea, especially American dairy farmers who worked tirelessly to overturn the Standard Time Act, even overcoming a veto by Wilson.

Undaunted, Garland continued to advocate for daylight saving time. For the next 20 years, he argued before any group that would invite him that a permanent daylight saving time would improve industrial efficiency and add an additional hour so Americans could enjoy more outdoor activities such as golf, tennis and baseball. He even enlisted the support of the motion-picture industry, arguing that daylight saving would increase attendance at the theaters.

Garland’s efforts were largely unsuccessful, although several large U.S. cities including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston and New York did adopt the time switch. It wasn’t until World War II that the practice once again became universal.

So why not come into the Library and find a new book with which to enjoy your extra hour of weekend?  Or, you know, sleep. That’s fine, too.  But here are some books to tempt you otherwise….


An Enchantment of RavensFans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, who loved the weird fairy settings and the talented, resourceful women who populated it, need to read Margaret Rogerson’s book.  Isobel is a portrait artist with a dangerous set of clients: the sinister fair folk, who crave human Craft with a terrible thirst. Isobel’s paintings are highly prized, but when she receives her first royal patron—Rook, the autumn prince—she makes a terrible mistake. She paints mortal sorrow in his eyes—a weakness that could cost him his life.  Furious and devastated, Rook spirits her away to the autumnlands to stand trial for her crime. But when the are waylaid in their journey, Isobel and Rook are forced to depend on one another for survival. Their alliance blossoms into trust, then love—and that love violates the fair folks’ ruthless laws. Now both of their lives are forfeit, unless Isobel can use her skill as an artist to fight the fairy courts.  If this gorgeous cover isn’t enough to intrigue you, then come for the powerful, transformative love story, complex characters, and the simply sumptuous descriptions that make this book completely transporting.  RT Book Reviews named this book a Top Pick, noting “Though Rogerson fills her tale with unique and complex characters, and her storytelling is beautiful, it is the powerful bond between her mortal heroine and her constantly surprising, supportive and fascinating hero that makes this story such a phenomenal read.”

Beasts Made of Night: Another phenomenal fantasy book, this one from the African tradition, from debut author Tochi Onyebuchi, who drew on his own Nigerian heritage to write this powerful and utterly engrossing book.  In the walled city of Kos, corrupt mages can magically call forth sin from a sinner in the form of sin-beasts—lethal creatures spawned from feelings of guilt. Taj is the most talented of the aki, young sin-eaters indentured by the mages to slay the sin-beasts. But Taj’s livelihood comes at a terrible cost. When he kills a sin-beast, a tattoo of the beast appears on his skin while the guilt of committing the sin appears on his mind. Most aki are driven mad by the process, but 17-year-old Taj is cocky and desperate to provide for his family.  When Taj is called to eat a sin of a member of the royal family, he’s suddenly thrust into the center of a dark conspiracy to destroy Kos. Now Taj must fight to save the princess that he loves—and his own life.  The lessons of self-acceptance, forgiveness, the keen understanding of what really separates the “haves” and the “have-nots”, and an utterly bewitching world all combine to make this a book that fantasy and sci-fi readers of all ages won’t want to miss!  Kirkus Reviews agrees–they gave this book a starred review, noting “”Epic” is an overused term to describe how magnificent someone or something is. Author Onyebuchi’s novel creates his in the good old-fashioned way: the slow, loving construction of the mundane and the miraculous, building a world that is both completely new and instantly recognizable.”

The River of ConsciousnessThe world lost a great deal when Oliver Sacks passed away, but his medical and literary legacy has touched countless lives.  Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep understanding and love of not literature and medicine, though, but botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology. The River of Consciousness is one of two books he was working on up to his death, a series of ten essays consciously written with his own mortality in sight, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human. Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl, wrote a stunning blurb for this book that says it all: “Oliver Sacks knew how much his readers would miss him, and he outlined these ten essays before he left us. Indeed, blessed are we who mourn. His was a voice that could untangle even the most formidable knots of medical mystery—the bewildering maladies of the brain—and roll them out into smooth ribbons of human story. I read these essays in one night, spellbound as he described petals, cameras, bombs—and, of course, neurons—so enraptured with details that only later did I realize how he had also explained the weightiness of time, memory, and learning itself. The River of Consciousness is the precious voice of Oliver Sacks come back to us, to do what all great seers do: lead us to places that we could never have found on our own.”

Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill:  It was in Brooklyn, New York, in 1883 that William F. Cody—known across the land as Buffalo Bill—conceived of his Wild West show, an “equestrian extravaganza” featuring cowboys and Indians. The idea took off. For four months in 1885 the Lakota chief Sitting Bull appeared in the show.  This book, from award-winning author Deanne Stillman, tells the story of these two iconic figures through their brief but important collaboration.  Unearthing little told details about the two men and their tumultuous times, this book casts light not a broad swath of 19th century American history, but also on the cultural and personal importance of Wild West Shows for Native Americans and white performers alike.  During this time, the Native American rights movement began to flourish, but with their way of life in tatters, the Lakota and others availed themselves of the chance to perform in the Wild West. Cody paid his performers well, and he treated the Native Americans no differently from white performers. When Cody died in 1917, a large contingent of Native Americans attended his public funeral. This book enriches our knowledge of these two men, and the world they inhabited, in well-researched detail, and with beautiful storytelling.  In it’s review, Booklist called this work “Thoroughly researched…Stillman’s account of this period in American history is elucidating as well as entertaining.”

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone:  On March 11, 2011, a powerful earthquake sent a 120-foot-high tsunami smashing into the coast of northeast Japan. By the time the sea retreated, more than eighteen thousand people had been crushed, burned to death, or drowned. It was Japan’s greatest single loss of life since the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. It set off a national crisis and the meltdown of a nuclear power plant. And even after the immediate emergency had abated, the trauma of the disaster continued to express itself in bizarre and mysterious ways. Richard Lloyd Parry, an award-winning foreign correspondent, lived through the earthquake in Tokyo and spent six years reporting from the disaster zone. There he encountered stories of ghosts and hauntings, and met a priest who exorcised the spirits of the dead. And he found himself drawn back again and again to one specific village that had suffered a loss too heartbreaking to forget.  This is a fascinating, heartbreaking, wrenching, and wonderfully insightful book that offers a stunning portrait of a tragedy that often feels completely indescribable.  As The Chicago Tribune recognized, this book is “Remarkably written and reported . . . a spellbinding book that is well worth contemplating in an era marked by climate change and natural disaster.”