Staff Book Suggestions Autumn 2014
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
(to be cataloged)
Sometimes one requires answers to questions such as: what would happen if everyone on earth aimed laser pointers at the moon?; or, could a person really live on a small but super-massive asteroid like The Little Prince? Answers to these and many other important questions can be found in What If?, but a lot of fun is also had with the unanswered questions—those the author deemed too “weird (and worrying)” for response. Randall Munroe is the creator of the popular webcomic xkcd, and has been responding to What If?questions on a blog with the same title for the past two years. This is his second book.
(Library of Congress Classification PZ3.E43 Mi 1912)
Middlemarchfeels like the quintessential autumn book to me. Maybe because I first read it in the fall, maybe because of the gloamy English small-town setting, or perhaps because it’s such a hefty tome that one feels like curling up with by a fire or in a window seat as the chilly November rain pours down. Middlemarch is a book I always recommend if someone wants to delve into “literature” but wants to have a good time. A complex tale of individuals and how they are shaped by the expectations of their community—and how they shape each other—at a time when society was changing, Middlemarch is full of subtle irony and, perhaps surprisingly, suspense: will everyone be miserable after making decisions they were sure would make them happy? Or is there yet hope? For fans of anything BBC-related, though less soap-operatic than it might seem, Virginia Woolf famously remarked that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
When Paris Went Dark: the City of Light under German Occupation, 1940–44 by Ronald C. Rosbottom
(Library of Congress DC737 .R67 2014)
This account of life in Paris during the German Occupation is nuanced and sobering. It surprised me to learn that the Paris police force was responsible for the actual round up and deportation of all the Jews they could find to send to concentration camps. Having just been in Paris I was shocked to realize that the Nazis had taken over the hotel where I stayed and used it to house their officers. This book makes it very clear that the citizens of Paris were worn down by the numerous regulations, curfews, and deprivations. The varieties of accommodations made by the populace to survive still continue to be a source of pride and regret.
(Library of Congress PZ4.B1685 Lo 2013)
We all know about prequels and sequels, whether based on older movies, novels, or political candidates. In literature, these are often written by someone other than the author of the original work; at times, this has led to the victimization or unnecessary exploitation of classics. Think, for example, of the various attempts to improve upon Margaret Mitchell’s never-to-be-matched Gone with the Wind(e.g., Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett or Donald McCaig’s Rhett Butler’s People). Sad. But with a sequel extending a narrative’s time-line into the future and a prequel looking to the past, what do we call a book that has a plot that occurs at exactly the same time as a previously told tale? Whatever the term might be, the best book of this unusual type that I’ve encountered is Jo Bell’s wonderful Longbourn, published exactly 200 years after the novel on which it is based, in 2013. Fans of British literature in general will immediately identify that predecessor: the title of Baker’s book is that of the home of the family of Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.The plot of Longbourn, the book, in fact, uses the plot of Austen’s famous novel as its armature; but for Baker, the focus is a housemaid named Sarah, who is a member of one of the small group of servants who work below-stairs at Longbourn. Like Elizabeth Bennett, Sarah’s smart and feisty character makes her worth knowing, and her story is worth telling: exciting in its structure, human in its emotion, and readable in every way. A perfect book to consume while waiting for the next season of Downton Abbey.
(Library of Congress PN1998.3.W38 A3 2014)
The latest book from master of trash cinema, John Waters, will delight old fans—the man has done nothing to clean up his act. Readers who have not experienced Waters or have only seen his popular Hairspray may want to stick with something a little less vulgar. That said, Carsick delivers what it promises—a fun twist on the road novel.
The Surprise of Cremona by Edith Templeton
(Cutter, AI .T246)
Templeton, a British fiction writer, here provides a travelogue of her journey through Northern Italy in the early 1950s. Thoughtful and funny, she also carries a bit of the imperiousness of her native country to the continent, as she makes her way from Cremona to Arezzo, offering crisp, witty pronouncements on Italian art, food, and men.
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
(Children’s Library PZ7.L578345 El 1997)
Ella Enchanted is a twist on a classic fairy tale, featuring a free-spirited Cinderella and an empowering message. A delightful book for teens or for families to read together, Ella is the heroine of her own story and is sure to win over the hearts of all who meet her. Enjoy the book first and then compare it to the movie adaptation with the whole family.
Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and The Violent Bear It Away, all by Flannery O’Connor
(Library of Congress PZ4.O183 Wi, PZ4.O183 Go, and PZ4.O183 Vi, respectively)
I just finished reading Flannery O’Connor’s first short novel from 1952, Wise Blood, and a 1955 short story compilation of hers, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories. I’m just starting her 1960 novel The Violent Bear it Away, and it seems to be in the same mold as the others: compelling prose that invigorates stories of personal triumph or tragedy, city versus country life, religious frailty, and of course, death, in the post-war South.
(Children’s Library PZ7.R79613 Fan 2013)
With the school year in full swing, it’s a good time to read a story set on a college campus. It’s Cath’s freshman year and she’s feeling extremely out of place. With a delicate father, a gruff roommate, and awkward interactions with several cute classmates to worry about, she really only finds comfort in her familiar Simon Snow fan fiction. But her twin sister is urging her to branch out and maybe she isn’t entirely wrong to do so. Rainbow Rowell manages to capture all the uncertainties of college, from living off protein bars because you can’t find the dining hall to larger concerns like worrying about the family you left behind. With excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow novels and characters you’ll want to befriend yourself, Fangirl is perfect for anybody looking forward to (or back on) their own college years.
A Hilltop on the Marne by Mildred Aldrich
(Cutter 8A97 .M34 .a 1915)
Has the exhibition Over Here: World War I Posters from Around the World piqued your interest for reading personal accounts? If so, A Hilltop on the Marne, by Mildred Aldrich (who grew up in Boston) is just for you. Her account begins on June 3, 1914, where she writes to say she has completed her move to Huiry and is at peace to retire and be buried there. On August 3, 1914 she writes to say that war has been declared. What follows is her unbelievable account of the war from her hilltop. Aldrich writes beautifully and intimately. Her style draws you right into her salon where she penned these letters and has you joining her for morning coffee by her pear tree. It helps, too, that she loved books. August 10, 1914 she writes: “I have your cable asking me to come ‘home’ as you call it. Alas, my home is where my books are—they are here. Thanks all the same.”
My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name,and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, all by Elena Ferrante
(Library of Congress PZ4.F356 My 2012, PZ4.F356 St 2013, and PZ4.F356 Th 2014, respectively)
These novels trace the friendship between two headstrong Italian Neapolitan women from their school days in the 1950s to the present day. Entertaining with a great sense of place and time.
Three novels by Sjón, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
(to be cataloged)
With the publication of these novels, the Icelandic myth-maker Sjón makes a grand American debut expertly blending surrealism, scientific reasoning, fable, magical realism, myth and history into captivating giants of prose. From the Mouth of the Whale is a rich, delightful, and surreal saga set between 1635 and 1639, exploring the all-consuming hunger for knowledge, scientific curiosity, the natural world, psychological realities, and the dark sides of humanity. The novel is mesmerizing, humorous, terrifying, and a lyrical masterpiece. A slender volume, The Blue Fox, reads more as a prose poem that’s part fairy tale and part mystery. Backed by the Icelandic winter, The Blue Fox intertwines two stories: that of a priest-hunter hunting the elusive, magical, and somewhat demonic blue fox, and the story of a naturalist mourning the death of his charge. It is a quick and absolute delight, a symphony of prose. The Whispering Muse artfully blends the fantastic with the dull, retelling the story of Jason and the Argonauts’ mythical quest for the Golden Fleece and that of the launch of the Danish cargo ship, the MS Elizabet Jung-Olsen in 1949. The fantastic is embodied in Caeneus, the mythical hero and myth-teller, and the dull is embodied in Haraldsson, the man obsessed with his research on the influence of fish consumption on the Nordic people. Odd and fantastical, this novel plays out brilliantly.
(Library of Congress + NC1075 .G4 1898)
I stumbled upon this book while shelving in the Art Department. I don’t know why it caught my attention, exactly—perhaps it was the romance of its appearance: tea-dipped, smoothed by palms and thumbs, precious as an artist’s portfolio. Inside were pen and ink drawings of men and women in Edwardian dress. Some of the illustrations were satirical in nature—such as those mocking the matrimony of a youthful heiress with an aged aristocrat—while others were sorrowful. I was struck by one drawing in particular entitled “Love Will Die.” In it, a man and woman mourn separately while the emblem of their love—a young child—lies in death upon an altar between them. Curious to learn more, I asked David Dearinger, the Athenӕum’s Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings & Sculpture & Director of Exhibitions, if he knew the artist in question, a one C. D. Gibson. David knew a lot. Apparently, C. D. Gibson was one of the most well-known graphic artists at the turn of the 20th century. He created the “Gibson Girl,” an icon of the young and beautiful American woman. Although problematic in ways, Gibson used this figure to address the corrupted values of American and European society. He namely critiqued the “ill-mated pairs,” or marriages, that were determined by economic factors rather than love or affection. Gibson’s works were influential and appeared in magazines, newspapers, and books. His drawings would also be a source of inspiration for subsequent graphic artists, such as Norman Rockwell. For my part, I feel lucky to have peeked into this volume to discover a world that was heretofore unknown to me. Even if Gibson’s works are already known to you, I would recommend inspecting this book. It’s worth it.
Pleasured by Philip Hensher
(Library of Congress Classification PZ4.H5235 Pl 1998)
Commemorating the 20th anniversary, the Guardian listed Hensher’s novel as one of the top ten books on the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Opening on New Year’s Eve 1988, readers meet the protagonist Friedrich, a 90s slacker, on the road returning from West Germany to West Berlin with a young woman and the British ex-pat driver Peter who has agreed to give them a ride. The car breaks down in the section of the book called Kaputt, and the plot takes turns that could seem madcap, as when Friedrich decides to attempt a con in which he will overthrow the government by distributing ecstasy for free to East Berliners; however, the two final sections of the book, Genug(Enough) and Reichskristallnact (Empire’s Night of Broken Glass) show that behind the depiction of Berlin’s youthful sub-culture there is a consideration of German history, humanity’s impatience and tendency to excuse its worst self, and the role of painkillers, pharmaceutical and otherwise, to deal with life, stories, and death.
(Library of Congress PZ4.M1235 Ro 2006)
I reread this book about once a year when the weather really starts to get cold. It is the bleak survival story of a man and his son in a post-apocalyptic winter, and McCarthy’s only science-fiction-like book. There is a satisfying combination of immediate and tense action sequences with more abstract poetic language as the characters make their dangerous journey to the coast. While not a warm winter pick-me-up of a book, The Road highlights all things beautiful and terrible in both nature and humanity and builds a compelling plot you will not be able to put down.