Staff Book Suggestions Spring 2020
Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World by Zara Anishanslin
(Library of Congress E18.82 .A55 2016)
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
(Library of Congress PZ3.R3494 Wi)
By day I’ve been reading Zara Anishanslin’s Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World and by night, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Both books take beloved and familiar cultural products (colonial portraiture and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, respectively) and examine them from a different perspective. Both authors sensitively probe the enduring legacies of slavery, gender, and power dynamics through a panopoly of historical actors (real and fictional). Anishanslin follows the threads presented by one portrait; they lead her to London’s Spitalfields and its textile manufacturers, to high society in Philadelphia, and into the professional nexus of a New England artist. Rhys gives us a poetic but unvarnished glimpse into the life of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway, offering a thought-provoking alternative to Bronte’s story. Ultimately, both texts reveal the complex networks and varied experiences of the British Atlantic World in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—reading them in tandem has been particularly enriching.
Patterns: Inside the Design Library by Peter Koepke
(Library of Congress + NK8805 .K64 2016)
Such joy to step inside this book, absorb the patterns, and learn about this wonderful library and what they do. Just as fun as walking through a colorful garden.
The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley
(Library of Congress PZ4.P158 Li)
Some of these stories are over 60 years old, yet still so resonant and fervent today. Paley said it best: “The wrong word is like a lie jammed inside the story.” In this collection of stories Paley is as careful as a surgeon selecting the precise instruments to make the story live and breathe.
House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson
(Library of Congress PR9265.9.H85 A6 2016)
Hutchinson writes powerful, stunning, thought provoking poems that will not leave you in a hurry. You will put the book down and become a different kind of listener to the world around you (near and far). These poems will not be ignored nor will you be able to shake the waves of truth afterwards.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
(Library of Congress HV6574.G7 K44 2019)
I found this a riveting story of the so-called Troubles that took place in Northern Ireland during the seventies. Keefe uses the story of the disappearance of a mother from a family of ten children as a framework to look at these tragic times and tragic lives of people in Northern Ireland. There is also an interesting Boston connection to Keefe’s story. After the Good Friday Agreement, Boston College collected oral histories from the participants which were to remain sealed until after their deaths. The portrait of Jerry Adams and the betrayal felt by many of his fellow IRA members that Keefe learned from that archive has stayed with me.
The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch
(Library of Congress PN452 .D36 2019)
This was such a fun read. Damrosch paints a fascinating portrait of English life in the late eighteenth century with brief character sketches of members of a club created to help Samuel Johnson cope with one of his bouts of depression. A number of the men in the club went on to have very distinguished careers. Joshua Reynolds was the friend who first proposed the idea of a group of friends getting together for drinks, food and conversation. Oliver Goldsmith and Edmund Burke were part of the original group and the club expanded out to include James Boswell, David Garrick and Adam Smith. Although there were no women in the club, Johnson was quite close with a number of women who we meet in the book. Damrosch did a great job of bringing all these people to life.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
(Library of Congress PZ4.W3292 Ni 2006)
I can’t get enough queer historical fiction, so obviously I’m a fan of Sarah Waters. I’ve been revisiting her gorgeous novel of London in the 1940s, The Night Watch (shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes). Centered around four protagonists, this novel (which begins in spring 1947 and ends in 1941) moves between very different characters and their common experiences of love, death, and survival during and after wartime. Rather than confusing the reader, the backward motion of the text builds tension and a delicious dramatic irony. The prose is both lush and sharp with Waters’s trademark eye for historical detail and keen description. A fantastic examination of the inner worlds and growth of those on the front lines of a world crisis, and of course, the power of friendship.
The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins, with an introduction by Hazel V. Carby
(Library of Congress PZ3.H777 Ma)
One of my BA colleagues alerted me to the existence of the novel Of One Blood by Pauline Hopkins (1859–1930), having seen the book highlighted as part of the recent Ancient Nubia Now exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. I was immediately intrigued by their description and was very pleased to find the Athenæum had a copy as part of a collection of Hopkins’s serially-issued novels published in 1988. So far, I have only read Of One Blood. Set in the early 1900s, the book tells the story of Reuel Briggs, a brilliant young Harvard medical student with a mysterious past, who although himself lacking funds, has social ties with his wealthy, high-society classmates. In their company, Reuel attends a performance of a company of jubilee singers (African American performers singing spirituals of the old South) and there encounters a beautiful young woman of mixed race who will change his life forever. Reuel’s adventures take him from Boston mansions and hospitals all the way to Africa, where he discovers that the legacy of the Ancient Nubian civilization is not dead and gone, and it is up to him to help it rise again. Pauline Hopkins (born in Portland, Maine) was known for her use of the romantic novel to explore social and racial themes, and this amazing book is an example of that. The plot has elements of the romantic, fantastic, and melodramatic, but the novel’s portrayal of the all-encompassing menace of racism, the long shadow cast by slavery, and the desire to restore the deliberately obscured significance of Nubia in the ancient world ring all too true. As I read Of One Blood, I became astonished and angry that I had never known about it before. So I am spreading the word and recommending it now!
Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade
(On order but not yet in catalog)
If you’re a fan of Bloomsbury—both the area of London and the literary set that populated it—then you’ll enjoy this book from Faber and Faber. I recommend the British edition—its cover resembling a white line woodcut entices me to walk around the square and the “Hazlitt” endpapers designed by Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher both charm and suit the subject perfectly. The subjects are five writers who lived in Mecklenburgh Square: HD (Hilda Doolittle), Dorothy Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf. I knew them all (although only a little about HD) and was intrigued at the grouping. I’ve read much (probably a small percentage of what I could) about Virginia Woolf, a biography of Dorothy Sayers, and Mary Beard’s biography of Jane Harrison. Eileen Power was the main attraction for me. I’d read that many of her papers were destroyed and had thought there was no bio. I now know there was one written in 1996, after my keen interest in Power whose stature as a historian caught my undergraduate eye. How pleased I was to pull my Penguin of Medieval People off my shelves and recall my younger self reading The Goodman of Paris and Medieval Women. Would Wade’s group treatment be more than a look at the coincidental, and non-concurrent, residential circumstances of five women? Yes.
I pre-ordered my copy for pick-up at the London Review Bookshop. I didn’t care that it was a signed edition, but I chose this as my main souvenir for a trip, months in the planning, for winter. I had bought a cheap airline ticket that allowed only a carry-on, necessitating a disciplined approach in bookstores and museum shops. I picked it up my first day and admit my first thought was mundane—it is much bigger than expected. I saved it to read for after the trip, when I wanted to return virtually. Travel is not advised right now, so if reading takes you away and you want to visit or revisit London, let Wade take you there in good company. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own informs most of the chapters, a fact Wade acknowledges (338): “The story I’ve told in this book has been one of community: not only between Bloomsbury women, but also between past and present and across the wider world.” Wade satisfied my own search for a sense of community right now.
A Shoemaker’s Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town by Anthony W. Lee
(Library of Congress F74.N8 L43 2008)
Originally I selected this book only to inform my Eye of the Expert presentation on the Chinese workers who came from the west coast to work at the CT Sampson Shoe Factory in North Adams, MA, in June 1870. I expected dry, academic writing that I would have to slog through. Instead I was delighted to discover that Lee weaves the story in a way that compels the reader to turn page after page. The incredibly unique story of Chinese shoemakers in western Massachusetts reveals universal themes of how we understand (or don’t understand) people who are different from us and how we cope with changes that are out of our control.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
(Library of Congress PN6727.B3757 Z46 2006)
If all this warm weather and sunshine has you longing for the days when we could hole up inside with a good book without any guilt at all, I’ve got the perfect thing. Despite its readability, this graphic novel packs a huge punch. I finished it in just two commutes to the Athenæum and, each day, I left the train with my head spinning. It was one of those rapturous reading experiences where you’re left in the same confused and dissociated state you might wake up in at the beginning of Daylight Savings. I highly recommend listening to the Original Broadway Cast Recording of the soundtrack to the musical based on the book once you’re done reading. You’ll smile, you’ll cry, it’s an ordeal. No wonder it won so many Tonys. I might be a couple years behind the eight ball with this but I think it’s one that will last far beyond its initial success.