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Archive for the ‘Setting’ Category

gettysburgHow many schoolchildren do you suppose have memorized The Gettysburg Address, then forgotten it? How many adults can complete the phrase “Fourscore and …”, but don’t understand what Lincoln meant by it?  Jonathan Hennessey, author of this sesquicentennial interpretation of Lincoln’s immortal speech, does both students and adults an immense service in breaking down the speech line by line to show what a radical statement the Gettysburg Address really was at the time.

Abraham Lincoln was not the featured speaker at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg four months after the three-day long bloodletting that is called the high tide of the Confederacy.  He was added to the program as a courtesy, but audiences nonetheless expected the kind of hours-long oration that served as inspiration and entertainment in the pre-broadcast days.  Lincoln had proved himself a master of the craft during his debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 campaign for the Illinois Senate seat, and was expected to use the forum to extol the Union effort.  Instead, in just 272 words he reiterated a vision which turned a common notion of the Civil War on its head.

The fourscore and seven years he referred to takes us back to the Declaration of Independence, not to the Constitution.  The Constitution was the root document cited over and over again in the escalating debates that led to the War.  Was the Constitution a compact voluntarily entered into by sovereign entities who could withdraw over differences of policy? Or was it the contract by which a single unbreakable entity was formed?  But Lincoln saw the Constitution as an outgrowth of the purposes of the Declaration of Independence, and the Declaration as a testament to the values which created a uniquely American people.  The Gettysburg Address is his case for that interpretation.

The speech led listeners through American history from 1776 to 1863, forcing them to recall the political compromises, sectional divisions, and bloody skirmishes which had presaged secession then blossomed into an unequaled bloodletting on American soil.  By walking modern readers through those same questions, and bringing then-current events in (what did the California Gold Rush have to do with slavery?) Hennessey shows that the War was an organic part of all that had come before.  But he doesn’t stop at 1861 – he also carries the reader through the chaos and disaster of a battle that neither side sought nor wanted, and on to the tragic end of Lincoln’s life.

Aaron McConnell’s vivid illustrations are a perfect complement to the text, adapting styles from each historical period and pulling complex and dynamic action scenes together with simple but affecting drawings of contemplative landscapes to build an emotional impact into the story.  He uses a nameless, voiceless African-American woman touring contemporary Washington DC to create an overarching visual narrative, then plunges into the events and ideas Hennessey lays out.  Together, they teach an accessible but not dumbed-down lesson in American history.  The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation is a terrific resource for students wanting a survey of the issues and an illuminating read for adults looking to make deeper connections to their understanding of history.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

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berberianA mild-mannered sound engineer’s latest project blurs the line between fantasy and reality in Berberian Sound Studio, writer/director Peter Strickland’s homage to ‘70s Italian horror films.

Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a sound engineer who specializes in nature films, travels to Italy to work on the sound editing for what he thinks is a film about horses. He’s right about the horses, but it’s not a nature film.  Upon viewing the opening credits, he discovers that he’s actually been commissioned to work on a film called The Equestrian Vortex, a lurid horror film about witchcraft and murder at an all-girls riding academy.  To make matters worse, he barely speaks Italian, the cast hates the film, and the director, Giancarlo Santini (Antonio Mancino) won’t even acknowledge that he’s even making a horror film, insisting instead “It’s not a ‘horror’ film.  It’s a Santini film.”

Homesick, but unable to get his travel expenses reimbursed so he can return home, Gilderoy stays in Italy to work on the film.  As the sound editing progresses, he not only becomes more entrenched in the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere of the studio, to the point of speaking Italian fluently, but he is unable to separate his life from his art.

Berberian Sound Studio is an inventive homage to the Italian giallo films of the 1970s.  Giallo is a genre of horror that typically, but not always, combines elements found in mysteries and police procedurals with common horror tropes.  Giallo films are also distinguished by their distinctive production design and sound, and a hypnotic, but incredibly creepy, score.  Notable Giallo directors include Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci.  Viewers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find additional background and context if they watch the special features included on the Berberian Sound Studio DVD.

Berberian Sound Studio is all about sound, and Peter Strickland keeps the focus on sound by not showing any scenes from The Equestrian Vortex aside from the opening credits.  The viewer experiences The Equestrian Vortex as Gilderoy does, through dialogue, music, sound effects, and, of course, lots of screaming.  Berberian Sound Studio is a meta horror film without many of the elements commonly found in horror films.  Through the use of sound, Strickland manages to create moments of real tension without relying on violence to generate scares.  Strickland also succeeds in crafting an impressive tribute to the art of foley, the creation of background sounds using common objects.

In addition to the use of sound, I really enjoyed the acting, particularly Toby Jones’ performance.  At the beginning of the film, Gilderoy is meek and polite, in sharp contrast to the brash rudeness of Santini and his producer Francesco Coraggio (Cosimo Fusco).  As work on The Equestrian Vortex progresses, Gilderoy’s personality begins to subtly change to match his surroundings, much to his chagrin.  Toby Jones gives a fine performance that works well with the tone of the film.

At the beginning of Berberian Sound Studio, Gilderoy is told, “A brave new world of sound awaits you.”  Strickland’s film is a clever and absorbing look at how this “brave new world” of sound is created and how it changes Gilderoy’s life.

Check the WRL catalog for Berberian Sound Studio

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painSylvia Plath’s summer internship as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine is explored in William and Mary graduate Elizabeth Winder’s insightful debut Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953.

In the spring of 1953, Plath, then a 20-year-old junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of twenty young women selected by the editors of Mademoiselle magazine for an internship as a guest editor of the magazine’s yearly college issue.  She travels to New York in late May and spends the month of June in the city: living at the Barbizon Hotel; spending long days working at the magazine; and enjoying evenings filled with parties, ballets, and dates.

Within two months of her return to Massachusetts, Plath suffers a mental breakdown that leads to her first suicide attempt.  Years later, these experiences form the basis for her only novel, The Bell Jar, published shortly before her suicide in 1963.

Instead of recounting the grim details of Plath’s breakdown, Winder focuses on Plath’s interests and cultural influences in an “attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist.”  Winder succeeds in reaching her ambitious goal.

Divided into eight sections filled with short, fast paced chapters, the book’s structure gives the reader the experience of an exciting, yet ephemeral, summer adventure.  The whirlwind of activity is anchored by candid interviews with several of Plath’s fellow guest editors.  These interviews are insightful and serve as a response to Plath’s depiction of her summer in New York in The Bell Jar.  The interviews, particularly the recollections of Carol LeVarn, provide some of the book’s most poignant and thought-provoking moments.

Winder balances the serious tone of the interviews with lively descriptions of Plath’s love of literature, fashion, and the popular culture of the early 1950s.  The text is enhanced by the inclusion of photographs, vintage advertisements, and fashion illustrations, including photos from the college issue.  Frequent sidebars include extended interviews, biographical sketches of people Plath met in New York, and quotes from her journals.  These sidebars add context to Plath’s experiences without breaking the momentum of Winder’s narrative.

Engaging and well-researched, Pain, Parties, Work will appeal to readers who are interested in Sylvia Plath’s life and work.  Elizabeth Winder is scheduled to present a program on Plath with Catherine Bowman at William and Mary on Thursday, March 20.

Check the WRL catalog for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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returnedA fifteen-year-old girl named Camille (Yara Pilartz) is on school trip.  As the bus reaches a sharp curve in the road, it suddenly careens down a steep embankment, killing all aboard the bus.

A young man named Simon (Pierre Perrier) dies on the eve of his wedding to Adèle (Clotilde Hesme).  He had just found out that she was pregnant with their first child.

Years later, Camille and Simon, along with several other people who died years before, suddenly and inexplicably return to their homes and families in a remote mountain town in the first season of the beautifully eerie French series, The Returned.

The first episodes focus on the characters of Camille and Simon, who are unaware they are dead, as they return to their homes.  Both soon discover that everything has changed.  In the years since their deaths, Camille’s parents Claire (Anne Consigny) and Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot) have separated, and her twin sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) is now an adult.  Adèle has moved on as well.  She is now engaged to a Gendarmerie captain named Thomas (Samir Guesmi), who is helping her raise Simon’s daughter Chloé (Brune Martin).

For Claire, still struggling to come to terms with Camille’s death, the return of her daughter is a miracle; one she hopes will bring her fractured family back together.  Jérôme and Léna are a bit more skeptical, but accept Camille’s return for Claire’s sake.  Adèle’s feelings about Simon’s return are more complex.  Like Claire, Adèle still grieves the loss of Simon, but she has found love and security with Thomas.  Adèle is soon faced with a choice that will have an effect on the life she has built with Thomas and Chloé.

While Camille and Simon attempt to reintegrate with their families, several other mysteries unfold.  A waitress is attacked in a tunnel and left for dead.  Her attack bears all the hallmarks of a serial killer who terrorized the town years ago.  A respected teacher burns down his house then jumps to his death from the local dam.  A nurse whose brutal attack seven years ago was linked to the serial killer, is followed home by an enigmatic boy whom she decides to call Victor.  Then there is the matter of the dam. Water levels in the reservoir unexpectedly drop, wreaking havoc on the town’s water supply.  Are these seemingly random events linked to Camille and Simon’s return?

Over the course of eight episodes, the first season of The Returned weaves together several seemingly disparate storylines into a compelling and creepy mystery.  I think the key to the show’s success is the setting.  On the surface, the town looks quiet and peaceful with its pristine mountains and tranquil lakes; however, the only access to the rest of civilization is a road that goes over the dam.  If the residents can’t cross the dam, then they are unable to leave the town.  The town’s isolation enhances the tension as the mystery deepens.

The Returned is an adaptation of a 2004 French film called They Came Back.  Although both share the same basic premise of the dead returning to their families, the film is a drama with supernatural elements while the series is a supernatural mystery.  Fans of The Returned should check out They Came Back if they haven’t already seen the film, but they should not expect the film to have the same characters and storyline.  Both are in French with English subtitles.

Check the WRL catalog for The Returned

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coverA Hundred Summers is set in the 1930s and takes place primarily in the town of Seaview, Rhode Island. We are immediately introduced to Lily Dane, a New York-born socialite with quite the interesting past. While all she may want is a quiet summer in Seaview, away from busy Manhattan, she is in for a shocking surprise.

After a seven-year absence she unexpectedly must share Seaview with the two people she never hoped to come across again, her once best friend Budgie Byrne and her former fiancé, Nick Greenwald. Much to the absolute dismay of the upper-class tight knit community of Seaview, Budgie and Nick have wed and return to restore Budgie’s old summertime home. Lily manages to put on a very strong air, but she is breaking on the inside. Her feelings for Nick never really went away, and the reader can infer she still cares for him deeply, maybe even loves him. For the people of Seaview the matter is even more complicated, as Lily has a six-year-old sister she is the primary caregiver for (whose skin and eyes are nearly an identical match to Nick’s). However, it soon becomes clear that all things may not be as they appear.

Told in alternating chapters between the years 1931 and 1938, the story slowly unfolds into a tale of young love, jealousy, misunderstanding and betrayal. Also included are a fair number of deeply buried family secrets that have the ability to rock both the Dane and Greenwald names and reputations.

This novel seemed much like a present to me, and as each section of wrapping was removed the contents became clearer and clearer and very much so in an unexpected way. Well-written and gently told, this book holds a great deal of appeal for anyone looking for a multi-layered story that accurately portrays both a very real period of our country’s history and a fairly realistic, though at times heartbreaking, love story.

Check the WRL catalog for A Hundred Summers

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hergeIt cannot be more appropriate for a biography of Hergé, the author of the Tintin books, to be rendered in a graphic novel format using ligne claire, which is French for “clear line,” an iconic style of illustration that is immediately recognizable as his. Tintin has been enjoyed by readers for decades, and interest was recently reignited by the 2011 computer-animated film, The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Stephen Spielberg.

Hergé was the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi, a Belgian cartoonist who was born in the early 20th century, and the book, with some artistic license, traces his love of drawing back to his earliest years. Each chapter comprises a vignette covering a particularly notable piece of his life. While the book is presented in chronological order, several years often separate each fragment of life that is portrayed. The result is a thorough, focused story that allows for a smooth flow of narrative without an exhaustive overload of minutia.

A fun aspect of the book, for any reader of the Tintin adventures, is the real-life people who served as inspiration for some of the colorful Hergé characters. Hergé’s father had an identical twin brother, and the two share a scene that immediately calls into mind the comic relief provided by the bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson. The back of the book has short biographies for several of the notable people who played a part in the life and work of Hergé. Although I usually skim over parts like this, I found the bios filled with interesting tidbits that perfectly complemented the story itself. One such was the brother of Hergé, portrayed only as a baby in the book, being the evident inspiration for Captain Haddock, due to his habit of using colorful language after a stint in the army.

An enjoyable and absorbing read, recommended to readers of biographies and graphic novels.

Search the catalog for The Adventures of Hergé

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Doomsday BookConnie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library.  She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities.  Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché.  Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression.  She mixes humor and drama well.

That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace.  Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.

The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible.  Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers.  So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator.  Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread.  As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.

The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines.  I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety.  The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.

If you enjoy this you might go on to some of Willis’s other time travel novels, To Say Nothing of the Dog and the duology of Blackout and All Clear.

Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book

Or get Doomsday Book for an e-reader

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TheOrchardistTalmadge is a lonely man, living quietly in his orchard, enjoying the quiet rhythms of the seasons and nursing the loss of his mother and the unexplained disappearance of his sister decades earlier. When two feral and visibly pregnant girls steal fruit from his market stall, he is intrigued rather than angry. Talmadge manages to befriend the girls, but only on their own terms. He shelters the girls and tries to protect them from imminent danger, but an evil man appears from their past with shockingly tragic consequences.

A powerful story, deep and quietly told, The Orchardist  entraps the reader into its world.  First time novelist Amanda Coplin breaks tradition by leaving out quotation marks, and telling some events from multiple viewpoints, and she succeeds in creating a compelling novel that exquisitely captures a time (around 1900) and a place (the Pacific Northwest).  But she most effectively captures the lives of ordinary individuals caught in extraordinary circumstances. The Orchardist is a moving portrait of people who are damaged but who remain remarkably resilient. The characters, like real people, would be better off if they could put the past behind them, but also like real people, some of them cannot forgive and they must survive however they can. 

Try The Orchardist if you like to get caught up in a sweeping historical novel with hardship and misfortune, but also with burgeoning hope, such as The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman or Year of Wonders,  by Geraldine Brooks .

I listened to part of The Orchardist and I highly recommend Mark Bramhall’s reading as his gravelly voice captured Talmadge’s gruff personality and the slow unfolding melancholy of the story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist on CD.

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WorldsStrongestLibrarianThis sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing  his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.

At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of  never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.

Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.

Don’t assume this is  a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

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ChristmasMouse1“The kettle began to sing, promising comfort.”

Sometimes only cosy* will do. On occasion I feel like action and excitement from my literature, and I am willing to put up with violence and despair to get it, but sometimes life requires a more moderate gait. When you need a gentle tome, then Miss Read will deliver.

I am new to Miss Read, despite her first book being published in 1955. I was creating a “Curl Up With a Cozy Tale” display at the library and felt drawn to The Christmas Mouse. Being slightly obsessive, I have branched out into her other titles in myriad formats; as ebooks and as audiobooks on CD. Her basic postulation seems to be that nothing in life is so bad that the sadness can’t be lessened by time, a cup of tea and the warmth of family and friends, with special emphasis on the cups of tea.

For my commute, I grabbed the first CD that was checked in and plunged into the middle of her Thrush Green series. I discovered that there are a lot of characters, like when my Great Aunty Judith tells me long and involved stories about the internal workings and external marriage problems of distant cousins, and I am expected to keep them all straight. After negotiating a tricky intersection I’d hear something such as, “Betty, Maggie and Dotty all sat down at Betty’s scrubbed kitchen table for a nice cup of tea. Outside the birds hopped among the spring flowers and chirped cheerfully. ‘Tell me all about it,’ said Betty.” I would suddenly realize that I had no idea of the identities of Betty, Maggie and Dotty, but for the enjoyment of the story it doesn’t matter because it is like meeting real people; I am introduced to them as they are now, and then slowly learn about their pasts and how they interconnect to other people we know in common.

The Christmas Mouse tells the story of Mrs. Berry who lives with her widowed daughter and two small grandchildren. Despite the tragedy of the daughter’s young widowhood, the book gently and with quiet wit paints a portrait of a close and stable family. On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Berry must face her fears–of mice and other stray creatures. The line drawings by J.S. Goodall add to the warmth. The little boy in the frontispiece exudes contentment, sitting in an overlarge armchair, wrapped up in a voluminous coat and slippers, and eating a warm bowl of bread and milk.

Try The Christmas Mouse if you are in the mood for cosy. Try it if you are tired of the commercial fuss in the lead up to Christmas, as The Christmas Mouse’s characters don’t have much material stuff, but still make Christmas a warm, loving family affair. And just in case you think this sort of book isn’t intellectually stimulating, I learned a new word, which doesn’t happen frequently in my fiction endeavors: wayzgoose, which is a printers’ outing. Literary quotes at the beginning of each chapter, from Robert Burns to William Wordsworth add to the appeal. 

* And this is definitely cosy and not cozy because this is a Very British Book.

Check the WRL catalog for The Christmas Mouse.

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City of SaintsFirst-hand knowledge of a novel’s setting can be a double-edged sword. If the author portrays the location ineptly, the reader that knows the place may find it impossible to enjoy other aspects of the book. On the other hand, if the author brings that setting to life, the local reader may be willing to forgive other flaws.

Such is the case for me with City of Saints, a mystery novel based on a once famous but now forgotten historical murder in 1930s Salt Lake City. I lived in Salt Lake for almost ten years myself, and although Hunt depicts a period long before my birth, I could picture my grandparents rubbing shoulders with Sheriff Art Oveson as he tried to solve the killing of an adulterous socialite.

At first, this Salt Lake City may surprise you. It’s grittier than one might expect, especially for the 1930s, but I always found the Utah capital to contain more cultural diversity and more big city problems than its squeaky clean Mormon image might imply. With mines and railroads in full flourish by 1930, and with the glitz and controversy of Southern California a day away, it makes sense that Salt Lake City has contained that diversity for a long time. That’s the tension that underlies Hunt’s story: Oveson is a practicing Mormon, but he comes from a law enforcement family. He knows there’s a darker side to his town. His partner is about as rough as men come and may have different allegiances than Oveson. Departmental politics and powerful men trying to protect clean public personae taint his case from the beginning.

As a mystery, Hunt’s tale is average, but because it captures an unusual place in a complicated time so well, I think you’ll enjoy it, even if Salt Lake City is new and exotic to you.

Check the WRL catalog for City of Saints

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whartonEdith Wharton is undoubtedly one of the great chroniclers of American society, as Alan noted in his blog post.  Although she was part of the class she wrote about, she was fully able to assess the standards and identify the weaknesses inherent in that class, and to limn them for readers of all backgrounds. Her characters, supposedly protected from the vagaries of the world by money and dynastic position, still suffered the anguishes of human emotion that could never be expressed.  Most allowed themselves to be thwarted in their personal desires by the rigors of their class and reputation; hence the tragedy.

Until she was forty-five, Edith Wharton’s emotional and physical life was also stifled by her upbringing and the expectations of her social peers. Married far too young to a man far too old, she established a life apart from her husband Teddy. A devoted Francophile, she immersed herself in Parisian life and culture while Teddy isolated himself in their Paris townhouse.  She created a web of friends—artists, writers, and poets (including her mentor, Henry James)—and a deep intellectual life, while Teddy longed to be at their Massachusetts home as a gentleman farmer mucking about in his wellies.  Their marriage was also widely recognized as passionless, and it seems Edith thought herself incapable of sex. Then Edith left her Age of Innocence for a new Age of Desire.

An encounter with American journalist Morton Fullerton awakened in Edith both an emotional life and a desire that made her risk her position and reputation to be with him.  Although Fullerton himself told Edith that he was sexually adventurous and morally questionable, his seduction of her left her helplessly enthralled.  She even found a way to ship Teddy back to the United States after he suffered some kind of breakdown, which enabled her to fully consummate her relationship with Fullerton.  But what started in a rapture of intellectually challenging romance and sexual awakening quickly devolved into what could only be called a tawdry affair as Fullerton’s true character emerged. When Edith had to return to the United States to look after Teddy, Fullerton dropped his contact with her. Although heartbroken, she still searched him out when she was able to return to Paris, only to find her ardor dampened by his fecklessness and greed.

The details of Edith’s relationship with Fullerton only came to light about 30 years ago, when Fullerton’s cache of letters to and from Edith showed that their perceived friendship was, for two years, a tempestuous romance. Only recently has another collection of correspondence emerged, and author Fields has made full and sympathetic use of both to add a richer element to Edith’s story. Edith’s constant companion, a slightly older woman named Anna Bahlmann, comes to life as a silent witness to Edith’s new world. As Fields depicts her, Anna had started as Edith’s tutor but remained as her secretary, the first person to read, comment on, and possibly correct Edith’s writing.  She was an essential constant in Edith and Teddy’s nomadic lives but so self-effacing that Edith never fully appreciated her presence, and in Age of Desire shifts between treating Anna as a friend and as a servant. In the fiction, Edith sees Anna as a conscience which must be banished so Edith can pursue her newfound needs; only belatedly does she realize what she has sacrificed.  Anna also takes on her own emotional life, as this restrained woman conceals her own ardor towards Teddy, is baffled by Edith’s treatment of her, and falls into an unexpected but unfulfilled relationship.

Edith’s public biography and writings have been known for more than a century; her private story is now well-known, and Jennie Fields’s fictional biography faithfully follows these events.  But she rounds out those facts with intensely atmospheric settings, and conversations plausibly created from diaries, letters, and published writings. From the salon gatherings where reputations were made and broken to the tête-à-têtes where confidences were shared, and even in interior monologues, she maintains a tone of sophistication and wit.  Gilded Age New York, the thrill of travel in Edith’s beloved Pope-Hartford automobile, ocean voyages, the atmosphere of privilege and reflected privilege among the servants—all are brought to life in Fields’s wonderfully rendered language.  Edith’s first sexual encounter with Fullerton is an erotic scene that renders in deep hues what other authors can only achieve in variations of black and white. Since she tells the tale in present tense, the unfolding of these intricate relationships seems immediate.  Historical biography can be difficult to achieve, but Fields does a wonderful job in Age of Desire.

Check the WRL catalog for Age of Desire

Age of Desire is also available as a Gab Bag for book groups

Check out the images of Edith Wharton’s life (alas, with only one indistinct photo of Anna) in Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life 

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rosewaterToday’s post is written by Jennifer from Circulation Services.

The story of three sisters seems to be deeply ingrained in our human subconscious.  There are the mythological Weird Sisters, the women of Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman, and those of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, to name just a few examples.  One could even go so far as to contemplate the “Three Sisters” method of planting beans, squash, and corn, used throughout North America in pre-Columbian times.  The motif is not limited to any single culture, and more often than not, as in Lee and Esquivel’s works, the lives of the three sisters are intimately connected to the food that they cook and enjoy.

Marsha Mehran’s novel Rosewater and Soda Bread is a fine addition to this little niche of a subgenre.  After fleeing their home country of Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the three Aminpour sisters open Babylon Café in the tiny Irish town of Ballinacroagh.  Practical Marjan, the oldest, is trying to keep the café (and everyone’s lives) running smoothly while being pursued by a dashing English gentleman.  Middle sister Bahar bears a heavy burden from a troubled past, but is finding solace in an unexpected place.  And the youngest, Layla, is a Shakespeare aficionado who just wants a little independence from her older sisters – and time to spend with her boyfriend.  As if life isn’t complicated enough, their landlady and former pastry chef Mrs. Delmonico finds a “mermaid” washed up on the beach.  Who is she, where did she come from – and what about the baby on the way?

Much like a rambler in the hilly Irish countryside, Rosewater and Soda Bread is unhurried in reaching its destination, minding small details and occasionally taking detours.  This is part of the book’s charm, though, especially when Mehran describes Marjan’s cooking and its effect on those who consume it.  For (most of) the residents of Ballinacroagh, Bablyon Café’s food and drink are synonymous with comfort.  Indeed, the best word to describe Mehran’s prose would probably be “cozy.”  I would highly recommend settling in with the book on a rainy day, a hot cup of bergamot tea by your side, and letting yourself be enraptured by the charm and intrigue of the Aminpour sisters’ adopted hometown.

Recipes for many of the dishes referenced in the story can be found in the back of the book, something for which I’m very grateful.  I nearly drooled when reading the description of Marjan’s tacheen, a saffron rice and chicken dish: “…first buttered rice and almonds, then fried chicken and sautéed spinach, the yogurt binding them into a brotherhood of delicious play.” Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?  I would recommend this book for gourmands, anyone interested in Irish culture, those who are fascinated by what happens when cultures from thousands of miles apart meet – and by how sharing a meal can help break down even the most seemingly insurmountable barriers.

Check the WRL catalog for Rosewater and Soda Bread

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nightfilm Night Film is a complex and engrossing mystery that’s perfect for crisp fall evenings.

Fictional Academy Award-winning director Stanislas Cordova’s oeuvre consists of 15 films released from 1964 to 1996.  As controversial as he is revered, his last five films were released independently and are collectively known as the “black tapes.”  His fans, known as Cordovites, regularly stage secret showings of these films called red-band screenings. Enigmatic and reclusive, Cordova hasn’t been seen in public or granted an interview in years, but stories about Cordova’s family and lifestyle at his private estate, “The Peak,” are the stuff of urban legend.  Stanislas Cordova is also the elusive focus of journalist Scott McGrath’s personal journey into the heart of darkness in Marisha Pessl’s second novel, Night Film.

 Night Film opens with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s beautiful and talented 24-year-old daughter, Ashley.  Her death piques the curiosity of Scott McGrath, an investigative journalist whose remarks about Cordova on a national television program resulted in a libel suit.  Despite paying a substantial settlement to Cordova, McGrath still believes he is a dangerous man and he starts an investigation into Ashley’s suicide, intent on proving Cordova was somehow responsible for what happened to his daughter.

Joining McGrath in his quest are two strangers who have a connection to Ashley: Nora Halliday, a coat check girl who encountered Ashley shortly before her death, and Hopper Cole, who met Ashley when they were teenagers.  As McGrath, Cole, and Halliday trace Ashley’s movements in her final weeks and unpack the mysterious nature of Cordova and his films, they learn the unsettling truth about a genius filmmaker and his family.

 As a movie fan, I was interested in reading Night Film because the book’s plot and the character of Stanislas Cordova sounded intriguing.  Pessl did not disappoint.  Her characterization of Cordova and the descriptions of his films are so vibrant and detailed that I finished the book regretting that Cordova’s films do not exist in real life.

I’ll admit I had a rather mixed reaction to Night Film’s protagonist, Scott McGrath.  On the surface the character seems awfully similar to Mikael Blomkvist from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (both are divorced investigative journalists whose reputations are tarnished by high-profile libel suits).  Scott’s investigation is compelling and the friendships he forms with Hopper and Nora are sincere and poignant.  Ashley Cordova may be dead at the beginning of the book, but Pessl does a nice job bringing the character to life, so to speak, through newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with film actors and acquaintances, and, especially, through her relationship with Hopper.

 Another effective aspect of Night Film is Pessl’s use of multimedia elements. These elements are extensive and include copies of internet slideshows, news articles, and web pages from the Blackboards, a secret web site dedicated to all things Cordova. The narrative is fast-paced and engaging, but these multimedia elements truly immersed me in Cordova’s life and work.  This experience doesn’t end once the last page is turned.  There’s even a free app for smartphones called the Night Film Decoder that readers can use to scan select pages of the book and access videos, audio clips, and slideshow presentations. The additional content is a lot of fun and complements Pessl’s vision of Cordova, his family, and his films.

“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.”

-          Stanislas Cordova (Rolling Stone, December 1977)

Check the WRL catalog for Night Film

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OperationYesBo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.

The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.

Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.

In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!’” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.

Check the WRL catalog for Operation Yes.

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MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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barbariansOh no! Andrew is posting another Terry Jones book!

Much as the barbarians at the edges of Rome’s noble empire did, you’ll just have to get used to it. (Except that there was a seemingly never-ending supply of barbarians and this is running up on the end of Jones’ books.) So.

History. We all know who writes it, and in the case of the Roman Empire there is little doubt. Their portrayal of the people and territories they conquered is an unrelenting narrative of a superior culture overwhelming illiterate untutored savages and bringing the light of Civilization into their benighted lives. One of the ways they succeeded in creating this narrative was by destroying all evidence to the contrary. But, like murder, history will out, and medieval historian and humorist Terry Jones has taken the heavy lifting done by specialists, collated it and brought it to life in an entertaining way.

To hear them tell it, the Romans were surrounded by enemies actively seeking the destruction of their city and way of life. But looking at the maps and the archaeological evidence, it seems as though the Romans, in a never-ending quest for return on investment, were the ones actively seeking conflict. And boy, did they get it. And boy did they get their return on investment. The gold of the Celts and Dacians, wheat from Egypt, religion, knowledge, and military technology from Greece, slaves from all over the empire, foreigners brought into citizenship by enlisting in the Roman army–the benefits all flowed into the coffers of Rome. But the price to the Romans was also steep.

They required a certain amount of stability to ensure that the stream of money didn’t slow, and that the expenses of running the empire didn’t get out of hand. Conquest and prizes caused runaway inflation. And new ideas might give people dangerous thoughts that had to be controlled. The easiest way to do that was to stifle the kinds of questions that generate creativity and change. Sons were forbidden to leave their fathers’ professions. Incredible inventions were suppressed and inventors killed. The libraries of Carthage were destroyed or dispersed, the Punic language eliminated and all of Carthage’s knowledge lost to history. (Except one important element, which Rome faithfully copied.)

Culture by culture, Jones takes us around the edges of the Roman empire, showing that art, learning, technology, law, and military skill exceeded that of Rome. What those cultures didn’t have was a deep-seated need to conquer any perceived threat to their home, which was what relentlessly drove Rome on. In doing so, Rome got to tell their side of the story for nearly three millenia; now, with the benefit of skepticism, scholarship, and science, those “barbarian” contemporaries can begin to assume their place on the stage.

Terry Jones’ Barbarians was published to accompany the BBC series of the same name. Although the video isn’t widely available, the book more than makes up for the lack.

Check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Barbarians, by Terry Jones and Alan Ereira

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knightFirst, a series of confessions.  This book isn’t in the library’s collection, so I don’t have a link to it.  I’ve written about Jones’ take on Chaucer before, so I may be replowing the same field.  And, even though my wife doesn’t understand it, Terry Jones makes my heart race.

Like his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circuses, Jones takes a flying leap feet-first into a settled world and turns it on its head.  Chaucer’s Knight was almost universally praised by Chaucerians.  After all, look at how Chaucer begins his description:

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Along with calling him “a verray, parfit gentil knyght,” there was, in the minds of literature scholars, little else that Chaucer could have done to hold the Knight up as the noble ideal in a journey filled with rogues, moneygrubbers, and climbers.  Not only an ideal of the nobility, but a brave crusader who fought for the Christian faith, and who embarked on his pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately on his return from overseas. Pious, courageous, humble, courteous – except for his long-winded tale, he truly is a role model for the ages. What could Jones possibly object to?

His career, for one. Line by line, Jones goes through the list of places Chaucer and the other travelers hear that the Knight has been–from Egypt to Spain and up to Russia–and shows that it is actually a catalog of atrocities and brutal warfare not at all characteristic of the noble Crusader.  If fact, in some of the places the Knight has been, the fighting was between Christian and Christian; in others he served Muslim rulers during their internal battles. His signature victory at Alexandria was marked by the massacre of innocent civilians, looting of the city, and the immediate retreat of the English knights, leaving their commander to lose the prize to the returning Muslims. His record of jousting violated every norm of that “sport,” in which the death of a combatant was considered a crime. And in a time when England was under near constant threat from France and internally, and in which desperate battles were fought, the Knight was conspicuously absent, even in direct violation of King Edward III’s order that warriors could not travel abroad.

From his career, Jones follows Chaucer’s description of the Knight’s income, his conduct, his retinue, his horse, and his dress.  At every turn, he cites the writers and mores of the time to demonstrate that Chaucer was satirizing the conduct of a man who could only have been a mercenary fighting wherever money was to be made, booty to be seized, or a reputation for upholding his contracts could be made. The problem for modern readers is that the definitions of the words Chaucer uses have changed over the centuries so that we have taken them at face value rather than studying the context Chaucer’s listeners would have implicitly understood. He also digs into that interminable story of Palomon and Arcite the Knight tells, pulling out the details that show the Knight was more comfortable with the language of battle and despotism than the courtly language of love a true nobleman would have used to tell the story.  How many generations of undergraduates would have paid good money to learn that it was a parody designed to be laughed at?

I don’t know how formal Chaucer scholars received the work, except in a few cases where his interpretation was dismissed. As a medieval historian at Oxford, Jones acquired firsthand knowledge of both the work and of the contemporary writers with whom Chaucer would have been familiar, and it seems to me that his view from outside the specialty may give him insight into the work. As a comic writer himself (and I quote a friend of mine who says, “Smart people aren’t always funny, but funny people are always smart”), he has a built-in eye for the fun Chaucer poked at each of the other pilgrims. And although the work is a serious piece of scholarship, it never bogs down.

Last confession: I learned about this book from a professor I had in college, and I dearly wish I could remember his name. The pebbles he dropped in his classroom continue to ripple to this day–that’s the mark of a good teacher.

Sorry, can’t check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight. If you are interested in it, try interlibrary loan.  Any decent university library should have it.

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