Staff Book Suggestions Spring & Summer 2022

Will Evans

A House in the Country by Ruth Adam
(Library of Congress Classification PZ3.A196 Ho)

Adam, along with her husband, small children, and a band of friends, decide to pool their resources to escape the deprivations and squalor of London at the close of WWII. Renting a manor house in the seemingly idyllic English countryside, they immediately become the envy of their city friends and foes, who all too frequently assume the form of unwanted guests. Moreover, Adam and company, former flat dwellers, quickly realize the necessity of servants needed to run such a behemoth of a residence, a proposition at odds with their democratic ideals newly born out of the irrevocably altered, postwar social order. Additionally, these erstwhile urbanites often serve as a form of amusement for the local rustics by their general cluelessness of country life. Lack of fortitude among the principles soon gives way to shirking and recrimination, and the band of utopians slowly dwindles. Part social experiment, part fish-out-of-water story, this semi autobiographical work offers wit, gentle humor, and a fleeting glimpse at a way of life that has all but disappeared. This work is unique among Adam’s writings, the majority of which explore feminist issues.

(Library of Congress PZ3.C3133 Be)

Possessed by self-assurance but unencumbered by any formal education, 17 year-old Sarah longs to restore the family country estate to its former glory. Reduced to genteel poverty by a deceased father that exercised poor business judgement while among the living, Sarah and family dwell amid the crumbling manor with little purpose in a neighborhood inhabited by eccentrics common to English villages. Her terminally vague mother does little to help the cause, when she marries a maestro, who brings to the union a fragile constitution and his objectionable children, a stepfamily rich in artistic pretensions, but poor in liquid assets. A new acquaintance in the form of a handsome diplomat, all kindness and flash, might rescue Sarah, but he proves to be frustratingly enigmatic largely due to Sarah’s naiveté. Determined to impress him, she impulsively escapes to London to earn a living, but her lack of any qualifications lands her a menial job and lodgings unsuitable for a carefully brought-up young lady. Sarah’s combination of cluelessness and candor is endearing and the cast of supporting characters do much to enhance this comedy of manners. But it’s England, the summer of 1939, and throughout the book an atmosphere of wistfulness coupled with a hint of impending doom hangs in the air. 

Anna Kelly

Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley
(Library of Congress Classification PZ7.B6637 Fi 2021)
Available through cloudLibrary in eBook format.

This book follows 18-year-old Daunis Fontaine, who is half white and half Ojibwe, as she navigates family tragedy, a budding romance, and a drug issue on her reservation. When she witnesses a shocking murder, she steps in to help the FBI with their drug investigation. She is reluctant, but her love for her family and community is strong, and she believes she can help the community find peace and healing by helping to find a solution. As she uncovers secrets, she realizes going undercover and searching for the truth was more complicated than she imagined. Daunis must learn what it means to be a strong Ojibwe woman (Anishinaabe kwe) and how far she’ll go for her community and loved ones.

Boulley does a tremendous job of bringing to light the drug trafficking and resulting tragedies that are occurring on this reservation and providing context for the prevalence of an issue like this, while simultaneously showcasing the strength, beauty, and resilience of Native communities and cultures. She reminds us to consider the human aspect of these types of tragedies, the effects they have on real people, and how to continue to honor those whose lives are taken at the hands of such tragedies. I also felt attached to Daunis immediately; as someone with a white mother and a Native father, I understood Daunis’s feelings of not quite belonging in either world. She is so easy to root for because of how smart and strong she is and how deeply she cares about her community and family, even with its faults. 

Christina Michelon

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
(Library of Congress Classification PZ4 .P46465 Es 2018)
Available through cloudLibrary in eBook format.

I highly recommend this as a late summer beach read, especially if you find yourself in marshy North Shore areas such as Massachusetts’s own Essex. Over the span of a year and set in late Victorian England, Perry beautifully illustrates a range of relationships, exploring the nuances of friendship, love, and intimacy. All the while, an invisible threat forever alters the lives of this broad group of complex characters. Gothic tropes abound!

This had been on my “to read” list for years but its recent adaptation as an Apple TV series motivated me to finally give it a go. My advice: read the book, skip the show! (Not even Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston could save it.)

Leah Rosovsky

Just Kids by Patti Smith
(Library of Congress CT275.S6444 A3 2010)
Available through cloudLibrary in eBook and eAudio format.

I have particularly enjoyed Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which covers her first experiences living in New York City and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.


Meatless Days by Sara Suleri
(Library of Congress CT1518.S85 A3)


Meatless Days is a memoir about postcolonial Pakistan. Sara Suleri was the daughter of a prominent Pakistani journalist and a Welsh mother. She tells powerful stories of her family and her losses in a hypnotic style.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
(Library of Congress PZ3.J27 Su 2008)
Available through cloudLibrary in eBook and eAudio format.

The Summer Book is a novel with a strong feeling of memoir. A young girl and her grandmother spend the summer on an island in the Gulf of Finland. Told in a series of vignettes, we watch the impact of time on an older person, on a child, and on the island itself. 

Graham Skinner

Role Models by John Waters
(Library of Congress PN1998.3.W38 A3 2010)
Available through cloudLibrary in eAudio format.

While not as beautifully sickening as Waters’s Carsick, the “King of Filth” and director of Pink Flamingos and Serial Mom muses on role models and influences on his early and later life. The book is a delightful walk through a gallery of his friendships, personal and filmic influences, his love of Rei Kawakubo’s fashion, and even a muse on the arts that he’s brought into his home. A good read for a John Waters fan, but Role Models is also a fabulous book that may not look at individuals we typically see as role models, but definitely the influences and “loves” of his life.

Carly Stevens

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
(Library of Congress PZ4 .H1447 Mi 2020)
Available through cloudLibrary in eBook and eAudio format.

I listened to The Midnight Library on cloudLibrary . It was narrated by actress Carey Mulligan who did an excellent job. Overall, the plot is a fun concept and I found the characters heartwarming. 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
(Library of Congress PZ4.B98666 Pa 2016)
Available through cloudLibrary in eAudio format.

Parable of the Sower is a beautifully written book with great characters. It is an interesting and important story crafted by a talented writer. 

Mary Warnement

August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones
(Library of Congress PZ4.J7938 Au 2017)

This title may confuse, but no, it is not a depressing weather forecast for New England but rather a rollicking thriller set in Detroit whose ex-military, ex-cop, incurable Romantic hero is named August Octavio Snow. Jones is a poet and playwright and while those sensibilities may inform his prose, this story is a page-turner for the beach, the plane, or the backyard hammock. You’ll get to know Mexicantown and other areas in Detroit, which are most likely unfamiliar. Yes, it’s a macho romp, but you’ll rethink the word “macho” after finishing.

Godine at Fifty: A Retrospective of Five Decades in the Life of an Independent Publisher by David R. Godine
(Library of Congress Lg Z1217.D38 G63 2021)

If you are a book collector living in the Boston area, you probably know about David Godine’s books, and the subtitle of this tells you pretty much all you need to know about his latest. Not simply a checklist or annotated bibliography, it’s a beautifully illustrated brief history of both his work in general and individual titles in particular. Anyone looking to satisfy a bookish craving will find nourishment with every flip of the page.

Bruno’s Challenge: And Other Stories of the French Countryside by Martin Walker
(Library of Congress PZ4.W183 Br 2022)
Available through cloudLibrary in eBook format.

In recent years, summer has meant a chance to bask in the sun of southern France while reading of the amorous and culinary adventures of Bruno Courrèges, chief of police of a village in the Dordogne who mediates everything from neighborly disputes over geese to espionage with major international implications. The latest in the series won’t be out until the end of August, but these short stories act as an amuse-bouche until the main entry is ready.


Rollo G. Silver

Rollo G. Silver, from ismardavidarchive.org.

June 2022

By Rebecca Johnston

Rollo G. Silver worked in a variety of professions and had many interests, but he is known today for his contributions to the history of early American printing, publishing, and typography. Throughout his life from 1909 to 1989, he witnessed some of the most turbulent events of the twentieth century, including the Great Depression and two World Wars. However, Silver found his home in academia and scholarly research, publishing several books on early American history and receiving recognition for his contributions to the field.

Rollo G. Silver was born to Anna (Newman) and Stanley Gabriel Silver in New York on June 27, 1909. As an undergraduate, he attended Brown University and graduated in 1931, in the early days of the Great Depression. Returning to New York City, Silver worked at the luxury department store, the B. Altman Company, on Fifth Avenue. He moved to Boston in 1934 and managed the Better Service Garage in Brockton, Massachusetts. Balancing work with his scholarly interests, Silver studied at Boston University and received a Master’s degree in English in 1941.

As World War II began, Silver joined the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps in 1943. He was assigned to the Climatic Research Laboratory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where he participated in tests designed to test the clothing and equipment worn and used by soldiers under varying climatic conditions. After the war ended, Silver continued working in the laboratory as assistant director until 1947. Building on his academic interests as well as his experience in scientific research, Silver then sought out opportunities in the field of library science.

In 1948, Silver graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Library Science from Simmons University. Silver continued researching and gained experience at other libraries before returning to Simmons in 1950 as a Professor of Library Science. He taught there for 15 years before retiring in 1965 to pursue his research interests full time.

One of Silver’s longest-standing research interests was the life of Walt Whitman. Silver began publishing essays on Whitman in 1930, well before beginning his formal career as a scholar. Silver also collected many of Whitman’s poems. In partnership with his wife, Alice Gindin, whom he married in 1933, Silver compiled a set of manuscripts and other works related to the famous author. Silver donated a 1930 edition of A Child’s Reminiscence by Whitman to the Athenæum, which is available for viewing by appointment.

A majority of Silver’s work focused on the early printers of the United States. In 1960, Silver published Mathew Carey 1760–1839, which described in detail the equipment used by this early American printer and the costs associated with it. Typefounding in America, 1787–1825 from 1965 explored the construction of metallic printer type in early America. According to C. William Miller of Temple University, works focusing on this topic in early America were relatively rare and Silver’s work “fills an obvious gap.” In response to 1967’s The American Printer, 1787–1825, Lester J. Cappon of the Institute of Early American History and Culture declared that Silver “has established himself in this distinguished company [of scholars focusing on early American printing], contributing notably to the bibliography of early American printing.” Rather than just a history of printing in America, this work “is an exposition of printing as a craft, the artisans involved and their relations with one another, the business and practice of printing, the printer’s dealings with authors, and problems of typography that relate ultimately to bookmaking and the art of printing.” Silver’s use of detail as well as his ability to communicate with his reader made his works notable.

During his lifetime, Silver was a part of many organizations that spoke to his interests. He joined the bibliophilic Grolier Club and the Society of Printers; he was also one of the founding members of the American Printing Historical Association. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts as well as an honorary member of the Bibliographical Society of America. Silver also served as a trustee of Boston University and received an honorary doctor of letters degree from Brown University, his alma mater, in 1986. The author, professor, and lifelong learner passed away on September 20, 1989. Today, the Boston Athenæum is honored to be the home of many of Silver’s published works as well as donations from his collection of Walt Whitman’s works.

Further Reading:

The American Printer, 1787–1825 by Rollo G. Silver
The Boston Book Trade, 1800-1825 by Rollo G. Silver
The Costs of Mathew Carey’s Printing Equipment by Rollo G. Silver
The Inventory of the Rollo G. Silver Collection at Boston University
The Rollo G. Silver Collection of Printing and Publishing History at Brown University
Typefounding in America, 1787–1825 by Rollo G. Silver


Helen McCloy

Helen McCloy, taken by Van Dyke Studios in Boston and appeared in the 1980 publication of Burn This.

May 2022

By Rebecca Johnston and Carly Stevens

Are you impressed by Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs? Or maybe you prefer Dr. Spencer Reid on the hit television show Criminal Minds? If either of these characters entices you, check out some Helen McCloy novels featuring one of the world’s first psychiatrist detectives: Dr. Basil Willing. McCloy’s series featuring Dr. Willing mixed psychology and the classic detective story to get inside the mind of a killer. McCloy published over 30 mystery novels from 1938 to 1980, 14 of which featured detective and doctor Basil Willing. When McCloy died in Boston in 1994, she was remembered as a prolific mystery novelist and as the first woman president of Mystery Writers of America in 1950.

Helen McCloy was born on June 6, 1904 in New York, NY. Her father was William Conrad McCloy, managing editor of The New York Sun and her mother, Helen Worrell McCloy, was also a writer, contributing to magazines such as Good Housekeeping. McCloy was raised a Quaker and attended the Brooklyn Friends School in Downtown Brooklyn. McCloy loved to read and was particularly fond of Sherlock Holmes stories. She started writing as early as 14 and continued throughout high school. At the age of 19, McCloy moved to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. After graduating, she stayed in Paris and began working for Universal News Services, owned and operated by William Randolph Hearst. She continued her career in Paris working as an art critic until around 1927, when she returned to the United States and began writing fiction.

McCloy’s career and personal life revolved around writing mystery novels. In 1946, she married a fellow mystery writer Davis Dresser, who wrote under many pseudonyms but used Brett Halliday most often. They had one daughter together named Chloe McCloy. While married, McCloy and Dresser began the Torquil Publishing Company. The two separated in 1961, but remained on good terms. In a published collection of McCloy’s short stories, Dresser spoke highly of his then former wife, “I feel that Miss McCloy offers readers something more than the usual detective story… There is something more for the imaginative reader… In each there is an element of the uncanny. In each the reader is challenged to go below the surface of what seemingly-is to the submerged currents of what-may-very-possibly-be.” McCloy’s writing and storytelling capabilities were highly regarded by everyone in her life.

One of McCloy’s best known characters was Dr. Basil Willing, first introduced in 1938 in Dance of Death. According to McCloy, Willing was “the first American psychiatrist detective” and “the first psychiatrist detective to use psychiatry in detecting clues as well as in analyzing the criminal mind.” In this first novel, he acts as the forensic psychiatric assistant to the district attorney, searching for the killer of a young woman whose burning hot body was discovered in a snowbank. He claimed that “every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints” and focused on methods using logic and psychological analysis to catch the guilty party. Over time, the reader learns more about Willing’s background, including that he came from Baltimore, his Russian mother made him a fluent linguist, and he studied psychiatry in Paris and Vienna after beginning his education at Johns Hopkins. McCloy wrote more about Willing and his background in 12 of her novels.

Over time, McCloy noticed that her writing style was changing. As the years passed, her books strayed from classic detective story patterns in response to a post-World War II trend “demanding more suspense and less detection.” The year 1950 saw the publication of McCloy’s masterpiece, Through a Glass, Darkly. This novel is a more suspenseful adventure for Dr. Willing and brings in the paranormal, as he faces off against a doppelgänger. McCloy brought several paranormal entities in her later books, from flying saucers to poltergeists. McCloy used an unsettling, potentially un-scientific antagonist in these novels to emphasize the horror of the situation. While many praised her “psychological thriller” books, she preferred the classic detective story.

Beyond her writing, McCloy was an active and well-respected member of the mystery and crime writer community in America. She was involved in the Mystery Writers of America, which was established in 1945 with the “purpose of promoting and protecting the interest and welfare of mystery writers and to increase the esteem and literary recognition given to the genre.” The MWA is also responsible for presenting the Edgar Awards, which honors the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television, film, and theater. McCloy became the first woman to head the organization as president in 1950, and she went on to win an Edgar Award for Mystery Criticism in 1954 for articles she published in the Westport Town Crier. McCloy’s career as a prolific mystery writer continued alongside her involvement in the MWA. In 1971, McCloy started the first local chapter of the MWA in New England which inspired the formation of ten other chapters to form across America from Florida to the Rocky Mountains. In 1990, McCloy was named a Grand Master by the MWA, the highest honor a mystery writer can receive. Famed mystery writers like Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, John le Carré, and Stephen King also had this honor bestowed upon them. Today, the Mystery Writers of America continues to honor McCloy’s memory through The Helen McCloy Scholarship. The scholarship is given to two individuals annually with the goal of nurturing talent in mystery writing—in fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and screenwriting.

But perhaps McCloy’s greatest contribution was her unwavering faith in the power of storytelling. She believed that the “true detective story is fun to write and fun to read,” and argued against the impulse to look down on stories that were simply about enjoyment. The detective story was one of the few surviving forms of storytelling, according to McCloy, and “love of the story is older than any folk-lore we know, as old as human language itself.” Despite positive reviews and acclaim, McCloy was modest about her work and her impact on the genre. When looking back on her career, she decided, “I cannot say what I have done. I can only say what I have tried to do.” Whatever her intentions, her devotion to storytelling was—and is still—celebrated.


Dragons and Unicorns

Add a little magic to your April with these dragon and unicorn books.

Picture Books

Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
(Picture Book Basket RUBIN)
This zany book tells you all you need to know to throw a taco party for dragons. Just don’t give them hot sauce, or else… well you’ll see.

The Paper Kingdom by Helena Ku Rhee illustrated by Pascal Campion.
(Picture Book Basket RHEE)
Daniel needs to go to work with his parents as they work overnight as office cleaners. To keep Daniel entertained, his mom and dad begin to tell him of the magnificent kingdom of paper they work in. Soon the office turns into a kingdom full of dragons and kings. Magical illustrations bring the tale to life.

Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea
(Picture Book Basket SHEA)
Goat thought he was pretty cool until Unicorn came to town. Unicorn can fly and make it rain cupcakes! How could Goat ever compare to that? Turns out he doesn’t have to because they are both pretty cool in their own ways. Envy turns to admiration and finally to friendship for Goat and Unicorn.

Graphic Novels

The Yin-Yang Sisters and the Dragon Frightful by Nancy Tupper Ling ; illustrated by Andrea Offerman.
(+ PZ7.L66135 Yin 2018)
This empowering story of two sisters demonstrates that we should value our differences. When a fearsome dragon takes over their village bridge, twin sisters Mei and Wei have opposing views of how to fix the problem. Wei wants nothing more than to confront that stinky old dragon head on, but Mei favors a more thoughtful approach. With Wei’s confidence and gumption plus Mei’s creativity and diligence, it’s only a matter of time before everyone can be happy again.

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill.
(Lg PZ7 .O5527 Te 2017)
Adorable illustrations bring this graphic novel of magical dragons to life. Meet a delightfully diverse cast of characters while you pour over O’Neill’s illustrations and learn about the mystical tea dragons.

Youth Fiction

Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliott ; illustrations by Geneva B.
(PZ7 .E46959 Dr 2018)
In Brooklyn, nine-year-old Jax joins Ma, a curmudgeonly witch who lives in his building, on a quest to deliver three baby dragons to a magical world. Along the way Jax learns more about dragons and himself.

How to Train your Dragon by Cressida Cowell.
(PZ7 .C8356 Ho 2010)
You may know Hiccup from the movies based upon this series. This series follows the adventures and misadventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third as he tries to pass the important initiation test of his Viking clan, the Tribe of the Hairy Hooligans, by catching and training a dragon.

The Basque Dragon by Adam Gidwitz & Jesse Casey ; illustrated by Hatem Aly
(PZ7 .G345 Ba 2018)
Part of the series Unicorn Rescue Society, this book follows the group on a trip to the Basque country where they have to save a dragon from the billionaire Schmoke Brothers. Will they be able to rescue the magical creature from greed?

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
(PZ7.L65775 Wh 2009)
Minli’s father always tells her tales of mythical creatures and magic. Minli decides to chase after one of these tales to bring her family better fortune then their poor village has to offer. She buys a magical goldfish, and then joins a dragon who cannot fly on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon in hopes of bringing life to Fruitless Mountain and freshness to Jade River.

The Dragonet Prophecy by Tui T. Sutherland.
(PZ7.S9669 Dr 2012)
Looking for your next favorite series? Look no further than the Wings of Fire books! Packed with action and adventure, you’ll find yourself lost in the rich fantasy world Sutherland has created. Look for the graphic novelization as well!

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.
(PZ7.B26 Gi 2016)
This epic tale will be hard for any middle grade fantasy reader to put down. Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the forest, Xan, is kind and gentle. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the abandoned children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this enmagicked girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. When Luna approaches her thirteenth birthday, her magic begins to emerge on schedule–but Xan is far away. Will Luna be able to harness her newfound powers on her own? And what will happen when danger comes to the forest?

Dragons and Marshmallows by Asia Citro with pictures by Marion Lindsay.
(PZ7.C5452 Dr 2017)
This early chapter book series is sure to delight! A girl, Zoey, and her cat, Sassafras, use science experiments to help a dragon with a problem. Keep reading the series to see how Zoey helps other magical creatures.

Young Adult Books

A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn.
(PZ7.H12563 Cre 2014)
Marni, a young flower seller who has been living in exile, must choose between claiming her birthright as princess of a realm whose king wants her dead, and a life with the father she has never known–a wild dragon. This coming of age story about defining your own identity is sure to be a page turner.

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman.
(PZ7.H2645 Se 2012)
Seraphina is a talented musician for the court of Goredd, a kingdom where dragons and humans coexist. On the surface, the kingdom is peaceful, but secrets and scandals lurk under the surface. When Crown Prince Rufus is found dead, everyone suspects dragons. Seraphina is caught up in the investigation with a very important secret of her own to protect.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
PZ7.R79613 Car 2015
If you are a fan of the enemies-to-lovers trope, you should give this fantasy a try. Born out of a fictional story in Rowell’s Fangirl, this book follows Simon Snow, the worst “Chosen One” ever to be chosen. He is constantly miss-casting spells and wreaking havoc on the Watford School of Magicks. His roommate Baz, an evil, sardonic vampire, would love to see the disaster that Simon’s last year at school is turning out to be, but he hasn’t shown up yet.


Sara Freeman

Sara Freeman, photo courtesy of Jeff Landman.

April 2022

Interview by Rebecca Johnston

A recent resident of Boston, Sara Freeman grew up moving between her home in Montreal and several countries in Europe for her father’s job as a foreign correspondent. After an early career in law, Freeman decided to pursue her passion for writing and received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in 2013, where she won the Henfield Prize. Her debut novel, Tides, was called one of The Globe and Mail’s “most exciting of 2022” and Lithub’s “most anticipated books of 2022.” Visit her website to learn more.

Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Where did you grow up? Where do you call home now?

SARA FREEMAN: I was born in Montreal, and I grew up between Canada and Europe. My dad was a foreign correspondent for a Canadian newspaper, and we were posted to Berlin when I was ten. I lived there and then in London as a teenager, and then subsequently came back to North America for university. I have been living in Boston for the past five years now. And yet, in many ways, after all this moving around, I still consider Montreal my home.

Q: Where did you study in the United States? 

SF: I first went to McGill for undergrad, where I studied history and Hispanic studies. The Hispanic studies program was mostly literature-focused, so that’s where I got most of my literary education. A few years after that, I went to do an MFA in fiction at Columbia. I was in New York for seven years before moving here.

Q: Did you have a particular class that was really interesting or impactful?

SF: For me, the first and most important moment was finding a creative writing workshop in my undergrad. I took a poetry workshop my final semester with an American poet called Thomas Heise. And it was the first time that I was in a group of other writers. Up until then, I had mostly written privately and probably not very well. It was really nice to be with other people who seemed to be as excited about each small word choice as I was. I started to think, “Oh, maybe I can do this, I could have a life as a writer.” But it also felt like there had to be a community around it. I didn’t know how to do it by myself. So those classes, those first workshops, were really meaningful to me. 

Q: Was that the moment you decided on your career, or were there other stops along the way? 

SF: Definitely other stops along the way. After I graduated from university, I worked in a human rights and housing rights law firm in London. I read a lot of affidavits and case reports, and found I was much more interested in people’s stories than in litigating. I went through a bit of a crisis about this and enrolled in continuing education classes in creative writing and English literature. I realized that I did want to pursue writing as my job. I had to confess to my family, “I’m not going to be a lawyer. I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” And then I started thinking about the possibility of an MFA. I really wanted that formal training. 

Q: And maybe the community aspect as well?

SF: Definitely. Having graduated from Columbia’s MFA program over ten years ago, I still rely on a lot of the people I met there as readers. Even if I don’t see them very often, the network is still there.

Q: Have the writers in your network been published as well? 

SF: Interestingly enough, I’m one of the late bloomers in the class. It took me nearly a decade after I graduated to get a book published. A lot of my classmates were published almost immediately after the program ended or within a couple of years. I had a few false starts, which is part of the story of Tides.

Q: What a great segue. Please tell me about Tides.

SF: As I was finishing my MFA, I started working on a novel, which was set in Montreal in the 70s. It was an ambitious, multi-generational social novel. Which is very different from what Tides ended up being. I worked on this first novel for at least three years. In the end, it didn’t coalesce. I felt a real sense that it had, at least artistically speaking, failed. I had to put it aside and mourn this project I had invested so much time in. 

When I got the courage to start up again, I knew that I wanted to write a much smaller and more intimate novel, a novel with a single character that I was following closely for a short period of time in a very heightened psychological circumstance. I had a sense that those constraints would allow me to finally write a novel that worked. But as these things go, the first draft also had many of the same issues I had encountered in my previous novel. There were moments that were really compelling, but the cohesion still wasn’t there, the form I’d chosen didn’t quite hold the narrative together. 

I decided to put the draft aside for a couple months, and then I reread it and found a few sentences—truly, just a dozen or so sentences—where there was an atmosphere that I found moving and intriguing. I remember going to the fifth floor of the Athenæum and opening a new document, trying to follow the line of those particular sentences, their atmosphere. That is how the final form of Tides emerged, with its condensed passages with a lot of white space around them. The final draft is very different from the first draft, almost unrecognizably different. That initial moment of surprise, of finding this new way to tell this story, and the unfamiliar rhythm of the language, was so wonderful. Before this moment, I hadn’t ever felt that the process was pulling me rather than me pushing up against the process. So that was a moment of real elation, and also terror, because I’d never done anything like it before.

Q: How long did it take to go from leaving behind that first project to finding your way through this new project?

SF: The first draft took me six or seven months. I pause a lot while I’m writing because I like to de-familiarize myself with the material in order to see what’s alive in it. With Tides, I took a few months off of writing before re-reading my first draft, and then came this energetic burst of rewriting, which was pretty quick, only a few months long. I had packed in so much energy around it and built up so much anticipation in the waiting, that it felt like the project had its own engine.

Q: Are you thinking about any projects in the future? 

SF: Yes, I am beginning to think about a new novel. It’s funny, I do wonder if this experience of such radical revision, which I experienced with Tides, will happen every time. I started playing around with something new recently, and it’s very different, in scope and style. It’s more of a developed social world, with more characters in it, and it’s far less internal. But I don’t yet know what its shape will be. I don’t yet hear it very well either. I’m still really feeling around for what it is. So, who knows, maybe I’ll have another moment on the fifth floor.

Q: What originally brought you to the Athenæum?

SF: My husband and I have a very close friend whose father has been a member for years and years. When we moved to Boston for my husband’s graduate school, it was one of the first places that we came to visit. I wanted to know if there was a place where I could write. When I lived in New York, I was part of a writers’ room, which I had come to rely on for my writing practice. I remember coming here and thinking, “This is certainly somewhere where I can write.” My husband’s an architect so he was blown away by the stacks and particularly thrilled by the glass floors. We were immediately won over by the atmosphere of the place. And the beauty.

Q: I always like to ask about hidden gems in the Athenæum. Have you found any you’d be willing to share?

SF: Well, the thing is, I feel very, very protective of my hidden gem. There is a particular table somewhere in the Athenæum that I love, but I’m not going to tell where it is. The incredible thing about this particular spot was that at important moments when I was writing or rewriting and really needed full solitude, that table, every time I arrived, was empty. It was waiting for me. And I haven’t really visited it too much since then because I’m a bit superstitious about it, because it is just so perfect. It’s like the Muses wait for you there.


Recent Acquisition: Poster for Boston Park Guide

Charles Herbert Woodbury (1864–1940)
Poster for Boston Park Guide, 1895
Color lithograph
Purchase; Karin Arntz Dumbaugh and Charles T. Dumbaugh Fund, 2020.


Recent Acquisition: Poster for The Chap-book

Will H. Bradley (1868–1962)
Poster for The Chap-book, 1895
Color lithograph
Purchase, Bartlett Hayes Jr. Poster Fund and Charles E. Mason Jr. Print Fund, 2020


Recent Acquisition: Carte de visite portrait of Frederick Douglass

George Kendall Warren (1834–1884), photographer
Carte de visite portrait of Frederick Douglass, about 1879
Albumen photograph on mount
Purchase, William Morris Hunt II Photography Fund, 2020


Recent Acquisition: Carte de visite portrait of Sojourner Truth

Attributed to Corydon C. Randall (1841–1908), photographer
Carte de visite portrait of Sojourner Truth, about 1882
Albumen photograph on printed mount
Purchase, William Morris Hunt II Photography Fund, 2020
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Recent Acquisition: Cigarette card of pedestrian Frank Hart

Heppenheimer & Maurer, lithographers
Cigarette card of pedestrian Frank Hart (New York: Between the Acts & Bravo Cigarettes, about 1880)
Tinted lithograph
Purchase, State Street Bank Print Fund, 2020
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