Staff Book Suggestions Spring 2016
Vita Nova by Louise Glück
(Library of Congress PS3557.L8 V58 1999)
Spring and autumn are my favourite times for poetry, and last fall I fell in love with poet Lousie Glück, who makes her home in Cambridge. In mid-April I read Vita Nova in one sitting, a collection of poems about spring, about death and rebirth, about starting over. Although the ostensible subject matter of the collection is the aftermath of a broken marriage, Vita Nova is replete with symbols drawn from classical mythology. As a historian and art historian, I find these themes in her work a hearkening back to oral tradition, to the foundations of poetry. In the New York Times Book Review it was once written that “no American poet writes better than Louise Glück[;] perhaps none can lead us so deeply into our own nature.” This exploration of the human condition has led critics to consider Glück’s work to be “bleak” or “dark,” but I find her work wholly uplifting, perhaps because of what poetryfoundation.org calls her poetry’s “dreamlike quality that at the same time deals with the realities of passionate and emotional subject.” If you wish to explore her work, the Athenæum holds many of her publications, as well as a volume of her collected works.
Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
(Library of Congress DA566.4 .B79 1996)
If you’ve visited Great Britain before, many of Bryson’s anecdotes will sound all too familiar. I enjoyed being virtually transported back to one of my favorite places on the planet and being reminded of its lovable quirks. If you’ve never been to England, Wales, or Scotland, this book is a fun, quick read introducing you to the charming people and places you’ll find there. Notes From a Small Island is Bryson’s final tour of Britain before returning to America after living 20 years as an expat. By the end of the book, you and Bill will wonder together why on earth he would want to leave such a lovely place. Flaubert’s verdant pastures and dusty roads of provincial France come alive, as does Madame’s hunger for the good life and fiery passions. A Gallic workout for the senses.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq; translated from French by Lorin Stein
(Library of Congress NEW PZ4.H8334 Su 2015)
Released in its English translation in late 2015, Submission, Michel Houellebecq’s (pronounced: well-beck) fourth novel, put the author into a near Rushdie-like exile after the book rankled Muslim extremists due its portrayal of the of the New Islamic Party candidate’s election to French President and the consequent induction of Islamic Law. Houellebecq’s caricature “graced” the cover of the January 7, 2015 lampooning tabloid Charlie Hebdo. That morning two Islamic gunmen shot and killed twelve Hebdo staff members and sparked the international Je Suis Charile movement.
The Islamic President’s election is a minor portion in a brief book, much like the controversial references to Mohammed in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Through its main character and narrator François—the bored, depressive, self-indulgent Sorbonne University Professor and J. K. Huysman expert—Submission questions how we all submit on a daily basis, and how true submission is an act of devotion in a society awash in manipulation, politicking and instantaneous impulse gratification.
The Man That Got Away: The Life and Songs of Harold Arlen by Walter Rimler
(Library of Congress NEW CT275.A75 R55 2015)
Harold Arlen’s music has always been better known than his name. A sampling of his songs shows that he deserves much better: “Over the Rainbow,” “Get Happy,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Blues in the Night,” “One for My Baby,” “World on a String,” “Stormy Weather,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Last Night When We Were Young.” Songwriters across generations, from Irving Berlin to Paul McCartney, have admired his work.
Arlen (1905–1986) grew up in Buffalo, the son of a cantor, and drew upon memories of his father’s music when writing his songs. Largely self-taught, he started out as a singer, pianist, arranger, and bandleader, before finding his calling as a composer, pretty much by accident—he came up with the melody of “Get Happy” in 1929 to pass the time during a gig as a rehearsal pianist. Over a long career, he worked in vaudeville houses and nightclubs, on Broadway, and in Hollywood, and collaborated with such great lyricists as Johnny Mercer, E. Y. Harburg, and Ira Gershwin.
Reading this biography, I especially enjoyed learning about Arlen’s working methods, the genesis of many of the songs, the ups and downs of the music business, and what qualities makes an Arlen song an Arlen song.
The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard by Anatole France; translated by A. W. Evans
(Cutter Classification VFG .F84 .c)
When I first learned that this nineteenth century novel’s protagonist is a scholarly bibliophile, even a bibliomaniac, I expected to enjoy the book. When I read the first page or so and found that M. Bonnard, that respected antiquarian and member of the Institute, enjoys sitting in his library browsing catalogues of medieval manuscripts and confiding in his haughty feline companion, I knew I had found a new favorite. The story follows Bonnard’s pursuit of an obscure and elusive manuscript, mostly disengaged with the characters he encounters along the way. A chance act of kindness, however, helps him find people who mean as much to him (or almost, anyway!) as his beloved books.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Library of Congress PZ4.I78 Ne 2005)
I’m well behind the eight ball on this one, but for the seven people left who haven’t already read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, now’s as good a time as any. His wistful, understated prose is suffused with melancholy, making this an odd choice for a spring read, since we usually associate spring with rejuvenation and joy. Well, maybe it was just the flowers and trees blooming and sunlight settling in, but I found this story—which charts the dynamics between three friends from school, their fears and hopes and failings and love for each other—quietly uplifting. That may sound like faint praise, but it was just the reminder I needed that life goes on even if you let go.
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Nazi Past by Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair
((Library of Congress NEW CT1098.T43 A3 2015)
I personally recommended the Athenæum acquire this book after I read it in 2015. The author, Jennifer Teege, was in her forties when she realized her birth mother was the youngest daughter of Amon Goeth, a notorious Nazi commandant made famous to another generation by Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal in Schindler’s List. Teege, who studied Hebrew in Israel and whose birth father is Nigerian, struggled to reconcile the heinousness in her heritage. The book splits its narration between Teege and journalist Nikola Sellmair. This was the first book in a while I read even when I could have done anything else.
Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor
(Library of Congress DD17 .M33 2014)
I have taken my time to read this encylopædic-like tome by Neil MacGregor, recently retired director of the British Museum, who based this book on his BBC Radio 4 show and accompanying exhibition at the British Museum. The premise will be familiar to those who have enjoyed recent books exploring history through a discrete set of objects (In fact, the MacGregor and the British Museum started the trend with A History of the World in 100 Objects). Each chapter uses one object as a starting-point, and because this coincided with a BM exhibition, that item is usually held by the BM; however, the conversation leads to other objects held in Germany and elsewhere. The radio program featured input from experts at other institutions, and even reading the text, you feel as though you are part of a conversation. The objects range from paintings by Holbein that one only sees in museums to lowly Notgeld which can be purchased by anyone for a couple dollars. If you have any interest in German history, I highly recommend this engaging book. I recommend reading one chapter before dinner; especially if you are having sausage (see chapter 10).