Staff Book Suggestions Summer 2016
Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse by Eric Jay Dolin
(Library of Congress Classification NEW VK1023 .D65 2016)
Combine your love of history, biography, the ocean, adventure, and birds (?), and commemorate the three hundredth anniversary of America’s oldest light station, Boston Light, by enjoying this comprehensive history of America’s lights. Build up your lighthouse enthusiasm by watching Eric Jay Dolin’s Athenæum lecture on Vimeo, or listen to the podcast recording on SoundCloud.
A Short, Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse by Theresa Levitt
(Library of Congress Classification VK1015 .L48 2013)
A fascinating history of the invention that enhanced the safety, cost efficiency, and effect of lighthouses worldwide, and the man whose research altered the science of optics.
Burr by Gore Vidal
(Library of Congress PZ3.V6668 Bu)
Forget all the hoopla about Alexander Hamilton. Aaron Burr was a far more interesting character, especially as he appears in Gore Vidal’s fascinating, thoroughly readable, and hysterical historical novel (And if you are worried about historical accuracy: Vidal’s Burr is no more fictionalized than Broadway’s Hamilton—and, even without the hip-hop, he’s a lot more fun). In fact, Vidal gives us a Burr who, though aged, is as brilliant, feisty, cunning—and randy—as he was in his youth, glimpses of which we get through Burr’s “memoirs” that Vidal occasionally inserts into the narrative. Whatever else he might be, Vidal’s Burr is also a true patriot, which makes one suspect that Vidal’s Burr is, in many ways, Vidal himself.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
(Library of Congress PZ4.E30 Cir 2013)
In his dystopian novel, Eggers follows Mae, his young heroine, into an internet startup company to explore questions of social media, privacy, democracy, history, and collective memory in twenty-first century America.
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
(Library of Congress ML3830 .S13 2007)
Oliver Sacks, celebrated neurologist and author, explores the connection between music and the human psyche through several extraordinary nonfiction stories.
Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth
(Library of Congress CT788.W777 A3 2012)
For those of you who, like me, are already going through withdrawals and just can’t wait for the Call the Midwife Christmas special, I highly recommend picking up the memoir the show is based on.
Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth is the first part of the affectionately termed Midwife Trilogy. I couldn’t put this book down! Some of the stories are reminiscent of specific episodes, and it is fun to try and remember how the characters looked in the show. And there are a number of stories that were brand new to me.
The wonderful thing about reading this memoir is we really hear Jenny’s voice. We get her internal dialogue, including her struggle adapting to life in Poplar and how she feels interacting with its slew of characters. The stories are just as heartwarming (and heartbreaking) as the television program. I can’t wait to continue reading about Jenny’s East End adventures in the second installment, Shadows of the Workhouse.
Downtown: My Manhattan by Pete Hamill
(Library of Congress F128.3 .H25 2004)
Pete Hamill grew up in Brooklyn and still remembers his first glimpse of Manhattan—from the foot of the pedestrian ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge: it looked like Oz. That sense of excitement has stayed with him. He began his journalism career as a reporter for the New York Post in 1960, finding that he always wanted to keep learning about the people and the neighborhoods he covered, even after his stories were written. Walking around lower Manhattan, he says, he still seeks not adventure, but chances to see the familiar in new ways.
Hamill intersperses memoir and history, exploring how streets and neighborhoods—the Bowery, Broadway, Park Row, Fifth Avenue, the Lower East Side—changed over time. All kinds of subjects come to light, from the rise of newspapers, to the beginnings of tap dancing, to the development of the grid, to the stories behind landmark buildings. He doesn’t just give the facts, but tries to envision everyday life in bygone New York, to see the city from the perspective of the old Knickerbocker families or the newly arrived immigrants. Along the way, Hamill reflects on New York’s never-ending dynamism and on why the city is the “capital of nostalgia.”
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
(Library of Congress CT788.S853 A4 2014)
Reading this book has been such a joy. Here is a recent conversation I had with a friend about it.
Me: I am so very happy one of the members suggested this book to me to read this summer.
Friend: How come?
Me: It makes me laugh.
Friend: That’s cool, what else?
Me: One of the people in the book was the editor of the London Review of Books and I like learning more about her. The nanny, Nina, captured the characteristic of the family she worked for and all the people who visited so well! I feel like I am sitting with them at the table eating pie made from tin filling.
Friend: Tin filling?
Me: You have to read the book.
Me: YOU HAVE TO READ IT! It is an epistolary novel. Nina write to her sister in the 1980s about all her London adventures!
Friend: EPISTOLARY!! Why didn’t you say that to begin with?! I love epistolary novels!
Enjoy the book!
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
(Library of Congress NEW PZ4.L537 So 1987)
I only recently became aware of this science fiction classic, but it was worth the wait. Solaris was first published in Warsaw in 1961, was translated into French, and then translated into English, from the French, in 1970. The story follows the (now) classic scenario of humans in the future interacting with extraterrestrial life. There’s a lot to this story: part mystery, part ghost story, part philosophical rumination. It has excellent, deftly drawn characters, and the world-building is top-notch. The plot: for more than one hundred years, scientists have studied the mysterious planet Solaris—its surface is covered by a massive ocean that’s not made of water, but is in fact theorized to be a sentient life form. The only thing scientists know for sure is that the Ocean has defied all attempts to classify it and ignored all overtures of communication. After some puzzling messages are sent to Earth from the space station orbiting Solaris, rookie Solarisist Kelvin is sent to find out what’s going on. He is horrified to find himself confronted with a being, an exact copy of a long-dead lover, apparently plucked from his memory. She is not human, but she thinks she is. The grief-stricken Kelvin attempts to find out what she is and why, asking himself how two species with no common ground—not language, not memory, not even life and death—could ever hope to understand one another.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders
(Library of Congress PZ4.S2548 Br 2005)
Published in 2005, George Saunders’s absurdist take on border disputes, bad leadership, and civic responsibility resonates to an unsettling degree in 2016. And it’s all over in under 130 pages, making this funny and smart romp one heck of a breezy read.
Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson
(Library of Congress NEW PZ4.U685 Ex 2008)
In the mood for a mystery from the heyday of whodunnits from the 1930s but you’ve already read all of the classics? Well, Upson has written one set in 1934 whose detective is Josephine Tey, which was the pen name used by Elizabeth Mackintosh for her classics, Man in the Queue and The Daughter of Time. Upson has done her homework to add convincing details, like giving a character a typewriter with the brand name “Good Companion,” referencing Saveloy skins and May Gaskell’s war library for soldiers, making the policeman an educated man with a taste for paintings, and revolving the action around the final performances of the long-running Richard of Bordeaux, an actual play written by Mackintosh. This is a well-plotted and suspenseful story, though the end may have dragged a bit, beyond the denouement. Mystery lovers with a taste for that period and bookish intrigue will enjoy this.