Staff Book Suggestions Autumn 2015
A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton
(Cutter Classification 65 .W55 .b)
After using the reciprocal benefits of Athenæum membership to visit Edith Wharton’s house in Lenox, The Mount, I was inspired to learn more about the author. And who better to tell her story than Mrs. Wharton herself? While lacking in much information on her books, personal life, or dates, A Backward Glance offers humorous and breezy memories from an otherwise very private person. It can read as a who’s who of friends and family loved most by the author (emphasis on Henry James), but Wharton fans and newcomers alike will easily forgive this and lose track of themselves in her beautiful writing.
Future Boston: The History of a City, 1990–2100 edited by David Alexander Smith
(Library of Congress Classification PZ1.F99 Fu)
While this selection was written during the 1980s and published in 1995, Future Boston rings eerily of global warming issues facing Boston today: case in point, our Boston: Sink Or Swim panel this autumn.
Created collaboratively by eight Bostonian authors, Future Boston centers on environment change themes as a basis for an anthology of speculative science fiction tales where a changing Boston itself is the strongest protagonist. Structurally, the book is a “chronological” series of loosely-linked stories of the citizens of Boston dealing with the slow reclamation of the Hub by the forces of nature: namely, the sea’s influence on the harbor, and the arrival of otherworldly visitors, for both communication and commerce.
Sometimes somber, sometimes charming, and always utterly Bostonian, this collection is an engrossing read. All the stories are gripping, and though separate, work extremely well as a complete “history” from all walks of Boston life. For modern citizens of this historic city built so near (and over) water, this book hits close to home, but also entertains and brings to life a number of familiar locales.
The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
(Library of Congress Children’s PZ7.P968 Ru 2000)
Before writing the beloved His Dark Materials trilogy, Philip Pullman wrote the Sally Lockhart mystery series, beginning with The Ruby in the Smoke.
Set in Victorian London and following the fortunes of the orphaned Sally Lockhart, schooled in math and pistol shooting and not much else, The Ruby in the Smoke opens on an October morning when murder is afoot. A mysterious letter received upon her father’s death quickly exposes Sally to more than her father’s world of shipping, teaching her about the opium trade and early photography, as well as making her question how those around her view women’s rights. Sally’s strength as a character is that she exhibits pride and fear in a relatable way. As the number of her friends grow, so too does the number of her enemies, and to find out the truth about her father’s death and her own past, Sally has to both advocate for herself and make sacrifices.
I only picked up my used copy of this book recently, despite having it for years. I always wait until the time seems right to start a book, and this one didn’t disappoint. If you enjoy this book, there are two others in the series, and one other considered a “Sally Lockhart Mystery” though only minor characters from the series are involved. Because of the graphic opium use in The Ruby in the Smoke, I suggest it is suitable for older young adult audiences.
The Last Amateur: The Life of William J. Stillman by Stephen L. Dyson
(Library of Congress NEW CT275.S853 D97 2014)
William J. Stillman (1828–1901) would have had trouble answering the proverbial “What do you do?”question. He worked in and pioneered many different fields and learned his trades as he went along. Born in Schenectady, N.Y., he began his career in the 1850s as a landscape painter and co-founded and edited The Crayon, a journal of arts criticism. When he retired in the 1890s, he was covering Rome and the Balkans for the The Times of London. In between he served as American consul in Rome and Crete, where he developed an interest in archæology and photography; he would become well known for his photographs of Athens and its monuments. Writing for American and British magazines and newspapers, he covered the arts, society, and politics. He was a memorable character, both idealist and curmudgeon, and threw himself into the controversies of his times. Dyson recounts Stillman’s zigzag career path and describes his varied pursuits, from creating a philosophers’ camp in the Adirondacks to sailing along sites associated with the Odyssey.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
(Library of Congress PZ4.F356 Sto 2015)
Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child, final book in the Neapolitan novels. Need I say more?
Book Collecting: A Modern Guide edited by Jean Peters
(Library of Congress Z987 .B68)
Published in 1977, this collection of essays on the subject of book collecting and book history is a classic of scholarship of the last quarter of the twentieth century. While its publication date may lead one to suspect it of being slightly outdated (or rather, pre-Internet!), it is still considered one of the foundational works on the subject of bibliographical history—a field of study that has grown immensely in the last hundred years or so. This book is an excellent introduction to the history, practice, and study of book collecting. It has essays on collecting, buying, preserving and appraising antiquarian books, spotting fakes, and bibliographical scholarship. Though not outwardly evocative of fall, this book does remind me of things scholarly, fitting for the start of a new school year.
Blackout by Connie Willis
(Library of Congress NEW PZ4.W734 Bl 2010)
All Clear by Connie Willis
(Library of Congress NEW PZ4.W734 Al 2010)
If thoughts of encroaching winter trouble you, try a little escape into history! It was with real pleasure that I recently cataloged these two books (well, one book in two parts) by Connie Willis, one of only four female science fiction “Grand Masters,” for the Athenæum’s collection. Almost ten years in the writing, Blackout and All Clear are the American author’s superbly researched, expertly plotted take on England, mostly London, during World War II. Willis makes splendid use of the time travel trope to bring us an immersive work of both historical fiction and science fiction. The basic premise begins in the not-so-distant future, where time travel technology has been developed and used at Oxford University to further the study of history. Oxford historians no longer merely read and write history—they travel back into the past to observe it first hand! Three young historians, Polly, Michael, and Merope, travel back to different points of World War II on routine research trips: Polly as a shopgirl on Oxford Street in London to observe the first few weeks of the Blitz; Michael to document acts of heroism in the evacuation at Dunkirk; and Merope to study evacuee children in the English countryside. They have always operated on the assumption that the timeline protects itself, that they cannot affect the outcome of pivotal moments in history. But a sudden malfunction in the time travel technology leaves them stranded, stuck trying to survive in wartime England, and an increasing number of small historical discrepancies leave the three friends wondering if their very presence might alter the outcome of the war. The story is less about the actual mechanism of time travel and more concerned with the question of how small actions and ordinary people impact the great events of history. With her understated, often humorous style, Willis touches on myriad aspects of the war in England, large and small: from Dunkirk to VE day, from the Queen’s beloved dogs to Alan Turing’s bicycle to naughty Whitechapel urchins. Excellent characters and a suspenseful storyline complete the package. Absolutely no previous science fiction experience necessary!
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
(Library of Congress NEW QL696.F32 M33 2014)
Still grieving her father’s recent death, British university professor Helen MacDonald decides she will train a goshawk. This book contains some of the most lyrical nature writing I’ve ever read. You will also learn all about the rudiments of falconry and the sad life of the author T.H. White, an austringer as well.
Berlin Now: The City After the Wallby Peter Schneider
(Library of Congress DD881.3 .S36 2014)
A year ago, we commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Mary Elise Sarotte published The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall and spoke at the Athenæum on the chaos of November 9, 1989, and the months leading to the bloodless fall. The translation of Wall Jumper: A Berlin Story appeared in 1984, written by Peter Schneider, political activist turned author, who wrote: ”It will take us longer to tear down the Wall in our heads than any wrecking company will need for the Wall we can see.” Berlin Now is a journalistic and anecdotal account of what has happened since the Wall fell and leaves the reader to decide to what extent any divide remains between east and west in Berlin.
(Library of Congress PZ3.B41142 Si)
I usually insist on reading in chronological order, but here I recommend the second volume of Bell’s fictionalized trilogy of his own life as a Londoner turned Suffolk farmer. Autumn calls to mind the harvest, even for those of us not engaged in agricultural endeavors. In this volume, his family leaves London to join him for the romantic country life; though they were not prepared for what would come, it was not fad. They stick it out six years and become committed to the life. He leaves his tiny cottage, where his man Walter and Walter’s wife move in, to join his family in Groveside, a larger home where he lives more as a gentleman farmer. Until his family moves on, and he easily decides to return to his simpler life—though I wondered at the callous mention of turning out Walter. But he also describes the many empty farms and poor conditions for agriculture in the 1920s so perhaps there were many available cottages. His turn of phrase is exquisite, although the last few pages, where he describes politics and his love interest, made him seem less sympathetic to me. His narrative is informed by a line from Seneca that was emblazoned on his gymnasium’s wall: res severa est verum gaudium, true joy is a serious thing.