De-tech-tives

detechtives

Recently I’ve noticed that television detectives’ detection skills have been replaced by technology. Between cell phones, email, tracking devices and the multitude of cameras that cover every nook and cranny of the earth, it’s nearly impossible for a modern TV criminal to operate in anonymity. This is a strange and drastic change from Dragnet days when phone dialing, ledger collation, footwork and thinking were involved in any arrest.

The YardThe Yard by Alex Grecian
What fascinates me is that, before modern techniques and technologies were created, police could catch criminals at all! In the novel The Yard author Alex Grecian portrays a squalid, horrifying London of 1890 where five-year-old children work dangerous jobs, living conditions for many are abysmal, and human life is held in little regard. Scotland Yard’s murder squad consists of 12 detectives who have roughly 400 murders per year to crack, and after the unsolved Jack the Ripper killings of 1888 public opinion of the police force’s skills is extremely low. Then the unthinkable occurs. A member of the murder squad, one of the men attempting to keep London safe, is brutally slaughtered. The team’s newest member is put in charge of the investigation, but there seems no hope in unearthing the crime’s perpetrator. Even after the Ripper murders, the idea of killing for pleasure is foreign to the detectives and they don’t know where to begin to find this new type of killer. But with the aid of Dr. Kingsley, the Yard’s first forensic pathologist (and somewhat of a Sherlockian figure) the squad makes slow progress, although the murders do continue. This is crime solving at its most basic – follow paltry clues, cogitate, and find a killer.

keystone-kops-granger

These 1890’s were a time when it was relatively simple to be a successful murderer. Police had few tools-of-the-trade and criminals were able to easily disappear in obscurity. Here are a few titles that examine various aspects of the infancy of crime fighting.

Devil in the white cityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
While examining the amazing feats that went into constructing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Erik Larson also describes the activities of H.H. Holmes, a Chicago serial killer who used the draw of the World’s Fair to murder somewhere between 27 and 200 people in relative anonymity. In fact, it wasn’t until he left Chicago, continuing to commit homicides and other crimes, that Holmes was finally arrested in Boston a year later. His Chicago killings, however, remained unknown until the custodian of Holmes’s Chicago murder castle (you’ll have to read the book for those details) tipped off the police and Holmes’s murder victims were found. This true story shows how easy it was to operate as an invisible killer in the days before advanced technologies.

Great Pearl HeistThe Great Pearl Heist: London’s Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard’s Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Necklace by Molly Caldwell Crosby
This non-fiction account of an early 20th-century jewel heist details both the plans of the thieves and the methods used by Scotland Yard to catch them. In addition to being an engaging read, Crosby’s book highlights the importance of this case to the future of British crime fighting.

Poisoner's handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
This entertaining book looks at the careers of New York’s first medical examiner and toxicologist. Surprisingly, these positions didn’t even exist until after World War I. Blum makes a potentially dull topic intriguing and understandable.

police corruption

As police forces moved into the 20th-century, corruption came to be accepted as a normal facet of law enforcement.

Breaking blueBreaking Blue by Timothy Egan
In 1935, during the dust bowl years, a spate of dairy robberies in the Spokane area resulted in the shooting death of Marshal George Conniff. Decades later, Sheriff Tony Bamonte of Pend Oreille County tried to shed light on the robberies and Conniff’s death. Author Timothy Egan paints a vivid picture of Spokane’s dirty underbelly and the role that law enforcement played in these crimes.

LA ConfidentialL.A. Confidential
This Oscar-winning movie portrays a shady LA police force that is rife with injustice and brutality. At a time when Hollywood was king, justice was elusive (put that on your movie poster!) and criminals often dwelt on both sides of the law.

victorian police

Certainly TV policing has little in common with reality, but then again, reality is far more interesting. So set aside your new-fangled DVDs and give an old-timey police investigatory book a try. At the very least, you’ll gain an appreciation for the accomplishments that were made with minimal means in less-than-hospitable conditions.

Command and Control

commandandcontrolIs it possible to be nostalgic about the threat of global thermonuclear war? I found myself asking that rather odd question recently as I read Command and Control by Eric Schlosser. From the cover art to the alphabet soup of cold war acronyms (NORAD, SIOP, SAC, and who could forget MAD) I found Schlosser’s tome triggering memories that were an odd mix of fondness coupled with dread: classmates and adults freaking out over the TV movie The Day After, Sting’s concern about the Russians fondness for their children, basking in the electronic glow of irradiated cities while playing Missile Command at the video arcade.

As I kept reading, however, my feelings of nostalgia soon gave way to an amazement at how little I knew about the most destructive weapons ever created and the protocols, or lack thereof, in place to ensure that they only go off when they are supposed to. While Command and Control definitely contains a lot of fascinating Cold War history and strategy, its main focus is on how the U.S. government has attempted to safely maintain the many nuclear weapons on our soil and throughout the world since their creation in 1945. When you consider that just one ‘accident’ could wipe out a city, it gives you pause. Let’s just say that the facts are not conducive to worry-free days and restful sleep.

To increase the tension, Schlosser intertwines his general history of the safety of nuclear weapons with the story of a specific incident: the ominous sounding ‘Damascus Accident.’  On September 18th, 1980, during a routine maintenance check of a Titan II missile silo in rural Arkansas, a seemingly mundane thing happened: a socket from a socket wrench came loose. Unfortunately this socket careened off the missile and created a hole that began spewing out rocket fuel. The thought of the unfortunate maintenance worker who dropped the socket says it all: ‘Oh man, this is not good.’ The author then provides a minute by minute tension-filled account of events that is layered throughout the book. It is a clever writing device that not only keeps you reading, but puts a human face to the policy makers’ use of terms such as ‘acceptable risk.’

100sunsAnother hallmark of this work is the author’s balanced approach to the topic. It would have been easy, given the subject matter, to depict many of the historical characters as two-dimensional heroes or villains. Instead the author presents fully fleshed out individuals with complex motivations. Good examples of this are the many scientists and administrators who developed the atomic bomb during World War II.  As a scientific achievement, the creation of the atom bomb was truly amazing and Schlosser doesn’t shy away from that fact. You begin to see the project through the scientists’ eyes as they puzzle and experiment to bring a seemingly impossible thing, the splitting of the atom, to life. Conversely, you also share their horror when they realize the sheer destructive power of their achievement and what it means for the world.

Ultimately, this book is an exploration of a series of questions that should be easy to answer: What is the strategic purpose of possessing nuclear weapons? Are the ones we posses safe? Where are they located? Who actually controls them and what are their targets? Before reading this fascinating work, I would have assumed it was my ignorance and default generational apathy that led me to be clueless. Now I find it hard to disagree with the conclusion of the author that:

Secrecy is essential to the command and control of nuclear weapons. Their technology is the opposite of open-source software. The latest warhead designs can’t be freely shared on the Internet, improved through anonymous collaboration, and productively used without legal constraints. In the years since Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the design specifications of American nuclear weapons have been “born secret.” They are not classified by government officials; they’re classified as soon as they exist. And intense secrecy has long surrounded the proposed uses and deployments of nuclear weapons. It is intended to keep valuable information away from America’s enemies. But an absence of public scrutiny has often made nuclear weapons more dangerous and more likely to cause a disaster.

Pleasant dreams.

Heartwood 4:1 – The Novel: an Alternative History

   The Novel I     The Novel 2

The Novel: an Alternative History
by Steven Moore
2 volumes.   1711 pgs.  2010 and 2013.

Steven Moore’s two-volume labor of love, The Novel: an Alternative History, is an astonishing and thorough exploration that goes back some 4,000 years. Moore defines the novel quite broadly and presents evidence that authors have been experimenting with it since its beginning, not just in the modern/postmodern era. Despite recent innovations, Moore believes that novelists in our time who attempt to step outside predominant mainstream practices are unjustly vilified by conservative critics – a reaction not nearly so prevalent for innovators in any of the other arts.

Moore includes titles many readers will recognize – Gilgamesh, The Golden Ass, Satyricon, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, the Decameron – but his worldwide focus brings to light many titles Westerners are likely to be completely unaware of. It’s interesting, for example, to see that quite a bit of fiction was written in Sanskrit in the first millennium, and that the Japanese novel in the 10th and 11th centuries was immensely popular. Irish fiction (8th C) and Icelandic sagas (13th) appear in Moore’s index before any fiction written in English (Le Morte d’Arthur in 1469). Readers may be surprised at the number of women authors active in earlier times, especially given present-day concerns that women writers are often neglected in terms of review coverage and critical assessment (see here, for example).

I won’t pretend to have read even half of the two volumes’ seventeen-hundred pages, but Moore’s lively, often humorous, and always informative writing has prompted me to read at length in sections I hadn’t really expected to explore. My approach has been to scan the chronological index of titles discussed, and then jump to the text after finding such curious and irresistible titles as The EggLugubrious Nights, and The Victim of Magical Delusion. Most of the titles in Moore’s book are in too little demand to be in the Everett Public Library’s relatively small collection (but you can submit requests for purchase, or ask for an interlibrary loan). We do, however, own some of these historic works, so I’ll share just a few, along with brief descriptions derived from Moore’s text (including a few of his quotes) to whet your appetite:

Life of an Amorous WomanThe Life of an Amorous Woman
by Ihara Saikaku  (1686, Japanese)
A “lively if sordid tale” that looks at the life of a woman who, when still a young girl, gives in to her sensual yearnings thus embarking on “a downward spiral into degradation.” As an old woman, after having had sex with maybe 10,000 men, it appears she has renounced her wanton ways and has devoted herself to the Buddha – until the reader reflects back to the framing device at the beginning of the book.

OroonokoOroonoko
by Aphra Behn  (1688, English)
Behn’s most famous novella features “one of the earliest examples of a conflicted narrator,” and includes such subjects as forced marriage, slavery, and colonialism. But principally, it delivers a sharp attack on religion for its failure to live up to its own ideals of nobility and justice. Moore calls Oroonoko a heroic romance at heart, but with graphic violence, and notes that it also employs the “noble savage” character type which would later be of interest to Voltaire and Rousseau.

EvelinaEvelina
by Frances Burney  (1778, English)
This novel was wildly popular at the time it was written. Its focus is a provincial young woman who goes to London for the first time, and the frequently humiliating, hilarious, and ridiculous situations she gets herself into. The book also looks at the dark side of courtship and marriage and portrays, well, just “how badly it sucked to be a woman in 18th-century England.”

But don’t settle for my boiled down accounts of these books, go to The Novel for Moore’s expanded, insightful appraisal and ebullient colloquial style – his infectious commentary will convince you that many of the books under discussion are ones you will want to check out. Moore’s history opens the doors to an expansive world of little-known fiction that awaits your exploration; let us know the titles you want to read and we will do what we can to get them into your hands.

I’ll close with a passage, pulled almost at random, characteristic of the kind of thing you can expect to find in The Novel. Here’s Moore talking about the Persian Adventures of Amir Hamza:

But the story doesn’t end there. A decade after the popular Lakhnavi/Bilgrami edition appeared, a publisher named Naval Kishar decided to bring out a complete unabridged version of the 800-years-in-the-making communal novel. He had the best Hamza storytellers (a class known for their use of performance-enhancing opium) come to his printing house and recite the portions they specialized in to scribes, and the result is the longest novel in world literature: his Urdu Dastan-e Amir Hamzah was published between 1883 and 1917 in 46 volumes averaging 900 pages each – in other words, a novel more than 41,000 pages long!

Fans of the novel owe it to themselves to poke around in The Novel.

For more on Steven Moore, see this interview in Music & Literature.

Heartwood | About Heartwood

Physician Heal Thyself

DR.I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened, but doctors, in the real world at least, are no longer considered infallible gods. This is great when it comes to getting second opinions and not being railroaded into unnecessary treatments. There is, however, a downside:  the perils of self-diagnosis. You see, without an authority figure (I tend to imagine Spock or Tuvok) to say “the chances of you being inflicted with such a disorder are infinitesimal” my fevered brain tends to see a deadly and rare disorder in the slightest cough or rash. Luckily, perhaps, the library has many tomes to guide me on my journey of disease self-discovery.

It is always best to start with the classics. The two heavy hitters are Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment (CMDT) and The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Such scintillating titles no? Both are geared toward the medical professional and provide rational, current and highly technical information on almost every disease and its symptoms, that you could possibly think of. Just don’t expect much sugar coating. Also avoid looking at the diagnostic images at all cost.

If ice cold logic doesn’t put your mind at rest, perhaps it is time to admit that the problem lies in the fear of disease itself or as the professionals like to say, hypochondria. Luckily, you are not alone. There are many tomes dedicated to individuals who struggle with the fear of disease. Best of all, they tend to use liberal doses of humor to describe their plight. Here are a few examples:

wellenoughalone

Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria by Jennifer Traig
Convinced she was having a heart attack at 18 (the college nurse’s reply: It’s a gorgeous day and you’re not dying) the author realized that she just might have a problem. This book is a witty, and often hilarious, self-examination of all the foibles of a woman convinced she has every disease known to man. Each chapter not only highlights her own “issues” but also puts her hypochondria in a historical perspective with amusing anecdotes from the past.

Hyper-Chondriac: One Man’s Quest to Hurry Up and Calm Down by Brian Frazer
hyperchondriacFrazer definitely suffers from hypochondria, as a child he came down with a new disease every month, but this book is also a far ranging quest to find relaxation and, for lack of a better term, inner peace.  He tries reiki, yoga, Zoloft, Craniosacral therapy, Ayurveda, dog walking, and even, gasp, knitting. Sadly none of them seem to fully rid him of his demons, but the hilarious journey is well worth it. For the reader in any case.

The Hypochondriacs: Nice Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon
hypochondriacsnineAnother subtitle for this book could be: misery loves company. After reading about these nine famous suffers and their quirks, you probably won’t feel so bad about any fears of disease that you might have. While each sufferer’s oddities are definitely amusing, this work also highlights the interesting connection between each malady and the individual’s creativity. In several cases, such as Charlotte Bronte, the illnesses, both real and imagined, provided a means of escape as well as inspiration.

hypochondriacsguidetolife

The Hypochondriacs Guide to Life and Death by Gene Weingarten
While there is a smattering of actual medical information throughout this work, this is pure satire and all the better for it. The author introduces you to his own neuroses, and then tries to convince you that you should have them as well. The chapter titles (such as ‘How Your Doctor Can Kill You’ and ‘Pregnant? That’s Wonderful! Don’t Read This!’) tell you all you need to know about the contents of this book. There are even helpful quizzes to confirm your paranoia.

So you now have all the tools you need to calm your irrational fear of disease. I’m sure you will be fine. Well, maybe not.

History Remembers, History Forgets

Throughout history, there have always been moments that define a generation. For my parents’ generation it was always, “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?”

Wait. Stop. This woman is writing about a topic she never experienced? Well, yes and no.

History Will Prove us RightIt may seem disingenuous for someone not even alive in 1963 to write about the importance of that tragic day in November, whose 50th anniversary we remember this year. But no crime in American history has been as hotly debated as the Kennedy assassination. The idea that the government, or anyone else, could weave an elaborate web to kill someone and then successfully cover it up has always fascinated me.

Luckily for you, public libraries have always prided themselves on being a free resource for information to their citizens. As such we try to collect differing opinions and viewpoints on as many topics as we can. The John F. Kennedy assassination is no different. And since this year marks the 50th anniversary, publishers are flooding the market with books and other materials to feed the need for information of the crime and of the man himself. Here are just a few that caught my attention.

Letters of John F. Kennedy provides a look inside the man who would lead a nation to the moon. No autopsy photographs here, it’s simply JFK’s personal correspondence throughout the years. Beginning with a plea to his parents for a raise in his allowance, the letters are interspersed with historical context to help the reader better understand. Glossy photographs, as well as some facsimile handwritten and typed letters, provide the backdrop for understanding the man who created the Peace Corps and led a nation through the most critical hours of the Cold War.

Kennedy Half CenturyThe Kennedy Half Century by Larry J. Sabato gives a good overview of everything JFK, including the assassination. Again, no graphic autopsy photos, but there are photographs of the funerals of both John and Robert Kennedy. The book also talks about how his not-quite-1,000 day presidency has influenced future generations.

History Will Prove Us Right by Howard P. Willens breaks down the Warren Report and shows that there aren’t as many flaws in it as a conspiracy theorist might hope. Willens is the only living member of the three-person supervisory staff of the Warren Commission and a lot of the source materials are his own journals and notes from his time on the Commission. Included are a plethora of citations and resources that Willens used in researching. If you don’t include the postscript about the staff with whom Willens worked and the notes/index, the book is only 339 pages long. For anyone doubting the conclusions of the Warren Report this shouldn’t be too cumbersome a read.

The Day Kennedy Was Shot by Jim Bishop was originally published in 1968. It’s an uncensored minute-by-minute account of the entirety of November 22, 1963. Part of the reason it’s been such a successful bestseller is that it not only breaks down the time frame, but also gives voice to so many different people’s perspectives on that fateful day. Also worth checking out is When the News Went Live, which illuminates the experience of the press in Dallas that day and the ways they covered the story as it unfolded.

When the News Went LiveThey Killed Our President by Jesse Ventura intrigues me, even though he’s not exactly my favorite person. Ventura has sixty-three reasons to believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. Told in his signature confrontational style, Ventura does have a significant amount of footnotes backing up his rants, which I love. Remember those missing pieces of evidence and missing witnesses I mentioned? Ventura goes in-depth with each of them, making a pretty strong case for, if not an actual elaborate conspiracy, then a very long trail of coincidences. And who really believes in that many coincidences, anyway?

The Poison Patriarch by Mark Shaw focuses not on why JFK was killed in 1963, but why his brother Robert wasn’t. This book doesn’t hint, but steadily points its accusing finger toward the Mafia, including Jack Ruby’s attorney Melvin Belli and Mafia don Carlos Marcello. Here’s the real reason I selected this book, though:

“Mark Shaw’s book…changed my perspective about the assassination.”
–Bill Alexander, chief prosecutor of Jack Ruby

Still have questions? Stop by the Main Library at 7pm on Wednesday, November 20th where EVCC history professor Jason Ripper will break down the context and significance of the JFK assassination. And the Evergreen Branch Library has a dynamic display at the checkout desk. It features both newly published and perennial favorites on this, one of the most discussed crimes in American history.

JFK Display

There are countless theories of what really happened that day, who was really behind it all, and what might have been done to cover everything up. While I’m not on board with all theories, I am heavily skeptical that so many inconsistencies should be ignored in favor of a preconceived notion that some guy just went crazy and shot the President. But what do I know? I wasn’t even alive then. Thankfully the library can help steer my fevered brain in the right direction.

So, where were you?

Carol

Free Author Talk Featuring Daniel James Brown

indexMark your calendar for 2 PM Sunday, October 13th for a special visit with Daniel James Brown, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. We have moved this talk from the library auditorium to the Everett Performing Arts Center as there is sure to be a large crowd in attendance. Books will be available for purchase and signing.

This book is a pleasure to read. It tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal. They were a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans.

The book’s focus on the lives of the crew members makes this much more than a sports book. The team members struggles to make money and stay in school tell a compelling history of the depression in Washington state, and the alternating chapters detailing the Nazi’s preparation for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin make the climatic chapters of the big race even more compelling. At times the book reads like a suspense novel, even though we know the ultimate result from the start of the race, the results of key races leading to the 1936 Olympics are unknown until we read them at the end.

The story of the central character, Joe Rantz, and his battle with personal and family demons brought life to the book. Joe’s story is one of resiliency, and is a testament to how individuals can overcome humble and tragic beginnings. The cast of characters is amazing. The coach Al Ulbrickson and boat builder George Pocock are just as important as the other eight in the boat. You will be pulling for them all.

Here is the official book trailer which is a good synopsis of the story with actual footage of the crew and lots of great still photos.

I hope to see you at this great author event on October 13th!

Library Podcast: Buffalo Bill in the City of Smokestacks

Courtesy of The William F. Cody Archive, Buffalo Bill Historical Center and University of Nebraska-LincolnCC BY-NC-SA 3.0

I’ve been fascinated with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show since I visited the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, WY in 1979. What impressed me most was that modern impressions of pioneer times and “the wild west” were actually molded by Buffalo Bill and his show.

Buffalo Bill’s appearance in Everett in 1908 occurred at the tail-end of the show’s twenty-five year run. It was a spectacular traveling show that claimed to tell the story of the settling of the West. Two freight trains were needed to carry all its gear, livestock, tents, bleachers, crew and performers. It pulled into Everett early on September 22 and set up on a vacant lot near the center of town, the future site of Everett High School. It performed twice, and left that night for its next destination.

After a lot of research on the show, I wrote a podcast script and compiled some readings—contemporary Herald and Tribune articles, Wild West show programs and route books, and excerpts from present-day books about the show, and about 1908 Everett. Seven library employees volunteered to read the sixteen parts of the 34-minute podcast. Sound effects enhance the dramatic parts. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center of Cody, Wyoming permitted us to use a recording of the authentic music of the Wild West, plus some great photos of the show.

On September 22, 2013, the 105th anniversary of the show’s Everett appearance, the podcast will appear on our website, http://www.epls.org/.

Cameron

Not Just a Pretty Face

The Magicians coverLike a literary magpie, I am drawn to pretty, shiny, exciting things. I often enter the library without a clue about what I want to read. I wander and browse until something jumps out at me – a cool spine design, a flashy cover, a witty title. It doesn’t take much.

I judge books by their covers.

Sometimes this approach backfires, but more often than not, I find that I like the book if I like the way the author has chosen to decorate it. It could be dumb luck, or perhaps the author and I agree on some deep, mystical, aesthetic level. Either way, I’ve been happy with my track record, and I’d like to share some of my favorite ‘window shopping’ finds:

Dreams and Shadows coverDreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill. This book will appeal to anyone who is into folklore, mythical creatures, and generally wizardy stuff. Cargill’s style of writing was right up my alley – a little bit edgy, but sprinkled with humor and an occasional academic interlude to fill in more information about some of the supernatural beings that are involved in his story. I feel this book was left open-ended enough that it could be turned into the first of a series, or it could remain as a good stand-alone work. Those who liked American Gods may be into this.

Utopian Man coverUtopian Man by Lisa Lang. This was a really lovely read from start to finish. I enjoyed getting lost in the world that Edward William Cole, our Utopian Man, was trying to create with his glorious Arcade. Setting the story in 19th-Century Melbourne made the book all the more fascinating, as it’s a time and place that is very unknown and exotic to me. I think the author brings this feeling of newness and excitement across very well to the reader. This is a light read full of beautiful imagery, a little bit of conflict, and a lot of imagination.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I’ve already raved about this book in another post, so I’ll get to the important part. This book jacket GLOWS IN THE DARK! Aside from it being a great book, what more do you need to know?

Deathless coverDeathless by Catherynne Valente. 2/3 Russian fairy tale, 1/3 history of Russia from the death of the Tsar through the Siege of Leningrad. It took me a couple of chapters to warm up to this book, mainly because I didn’t know what it was I was getting into: fantasy, a dream sequence, a paranoid delusion, or allegory. Once I figured out how I related to the book, I was drawn in. Deathless reads primarily like a folktale, punctuated with passages full of beauty, mystery, hardship, poetry, mythology, joy, and melancholy. While the library doesn’t own Deathless, I was able to get it through Interlibrary Loan. EPL does have many of Valente’s other titles on shelf.

Age of Wonder coverThe Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. I picked this one up shortly after I finished grad school. I found a note I’d written about it on GoodReads while I was reading the book that made me chuckle: “Interesting subject matter, but perhaps a bit more dense than my poor brain wants to deal with so soon after graduating. Recovery is a long, hard road. I’m sticking it out though, for the greater good.” I am happy to report that it was worth it, and that I learned a lot about science in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As grueling as I made it sound, the book was quite a pleasure to read.

Super Sad True Love Story coverSuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. SSTLS is kind of an odd book for me. Generally when I love a book, I love it from the beginning. With this story, my feelings sometimes bordered on hate, and for the most part, hovered in the area of disinterest. Then a funny thing happened: I finished the story and let it marinate in my brain for a while. Soon enough, ideas from SSTLS started popping up in conversations with friends and they would immediately jump in saying that they’d read the same book and completely agreed. Similar to the movie Idiocracy, SSTLS delivers a darkly humorous appraisal of the future of mankind that occasionally seems prophetic when watching the news.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Kind of like Harry Potter, but for grown folks. I went on to read the sequel, The Magician King, and enjoyed it just as much. I would recommend Grossman for anyone who likes a little humor and sarcasm to go along with their fantasy reads.

Travels in Siberia coverTravels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Before I knew that Ian Frazier was awesome, I stumbled upon his cover for Travels in Siberia. I thought it was lovely and that combined with my odd fascination with all things Russian was enough to get me to put it on hold. I was not disappointed. I think those who enjoy the kind of travel writing one gets from Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson would really connect with this author.

Lisa

Way Down South

antarctica1

There is no denying that we are heading into the height of the summer season. It is true that we generally get off easily compared with many localities when it comes to high temperatures. Sadly that comparison is not enough to keep me from complaining about the heat. I know upper 80s here is nothing compared to a sultry summer evening in the Everglades. But really, does appreciating that I’m not in the Everglades make it any less hot? I think not.

In order to compensate, or perhaps due to the daily gusts of frigid air from the cooling duct in the Reference office, my mind has recently been contemplating the frozen continent of Antarctica. Since most of us have not had a chance to visit, Antarctica is one of the last blank spots on the map. This allows us to project all sorts of ideas onto the southern pole.

For some there is an Antarctica inhabited by the noble Emperor Penguin, whose exploits we follow in both moralizing animated and documentary form. For others, Antarctica is a continent on the verge of collapse due to global warming and human exploitation. For me though, I’ve always held on to the image of Antarctica as the cold, brutal, and isolating environment that has tested those who have tried to endure there.

thecoldestmarchThe perfect example of this view of Antarctica is the early 20th century race to discover the South Pole carried out by the dueling expeditions of Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen. In the short-term, Amundsen definitely won the prize. Not only did he get to the pole five weeks ahead of Scott, he actually survived the trip back. In an interesting reversal of the maxim that the winners are the ones who write history, however, Scott and his doomed expedition definitely won the award for most written about and discussed, albeit posthumously..

scottoftheantarcticIf you want to sample some of what’s out there why not start with The Coldest March: Scott’s Fatal Antarctic Expedition by Susan Solomon. All the heroic (or depending on your view, foolhardy) details are included. My favorite being Lawrence Oates’s final words as he departs the tent to his certain doom:  “I am just going outside and I may be some time”. Talk about a stiff upper lip. If you want to get a little more perspective, why not try a biography of Scott such as the excellent Scott of the Antarctic: A Life of Courage and Tragedy by David Crane.

enduranceNot all is doom and gloom in the effort to explore Antarctica however. The members of Scott’s party that did not attempt the pole, led by Victor Campbell and dedicated to scientific research, actually survived the ordeal. Their harrowing tale is expertly told in The Longest Winter: The Incredible Survival of Captain Scott’s Lost Party by Katherine Lambert. The teams led by Ernest Shackleton, who headed expeditions before and after Scott, also survived after many hardships. Their exploits are detailed in The Lost Men: The Harrowing Saga of Shackleton’s Ross Sea Party by Kelly Tyler-Lewis and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.

lostphotographsEven if you aren’t into the history of Antarctic exploration, you may want to check out two related books of photography. Both Scott and Shackleton took photographs on their expeditions and two recent books put these pictures together: The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott by D.M. Wilson and The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography by David Hempleman-Adams. The black and white images are impressive on their own but they also have a haunting quality, especially when you consider the effort put into actually taking them in such extreme conditions and the history of the expeditions.

Finally, if you don’t mind hitting the road, well taking a ferry actually, you might want to check out an exhibition currently at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria titled Race to the End of the Earth. This traveling exhibition is chock full of original artifacts, photographs and even has a life-size replica of Scott’s hut at Cape Evans.

So while reading about Antarctica didn’t lower the physical temperature, it did help me appreciate the temperatures we do have. At least until the next heat wave…

Richard

Questionable Things

Due to my exposure to the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius at a formative age, I’ve always had a weakness for biographies of historical figures with a healthy amount of scandal. There is an admittedly voyeuristic pleasure at poking around the lives of others. Along with that goes a rather questionable, though undeniable, desire to judge the historical figure by your own standards: Are they guilty or innocent? Good or bad? Sympathetic or villainous?

Two biographies I recently read are great at taking this desire on the part of the reader and turning it on its head. Both introduce you to individuals who may have done “questionable things”. Instead of becoming an indictment or whitewash of their character, however, each author sketches a figure that is complex and hard to define. This ultimately frustrates the reader’s desire to judge, but leads to even more meaningful insights.

Vera GranVera Gran: the Accused by Agata Tuszynska.
We are first introduced to the subject of this biography, Vera Gran, as an elderly and paranoid woman who rarely leaves her small Paris apartment. The author must first interview her in the hallway since, according to Vera, spies are everywhere and the apartment is bugged. Eventually she is allowed inside the cramped and document filled space and Vera begins to tell her story.

And what a story it is. Vera Gran, the stage name she went by the most often, was a torch singer from Poland who established a career before the German occupation of her country during World War II.  It is her activities during the war that, for better or worse, defined her life in her own and many others eyes.  Vera and her family, being Jewish, were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and in order to survive Vera, as well as many other Jewish entertainers, continued to perform.

Almost the entirety of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered but Vera was one of the few to survive. The very act of survival, however, brought up questions after the war concerning complicity, culpability and possible collaboration. It is this struggle to defend her actions that becomes the focus of Vera’s life. Her relationship with Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who also survived the Ghetto and whose life became an Oscar-winning film, eventually becomes the focus of this all-consuming need to clear her name.

Vera Gran: The Accused is a character study that delves into the ideas of guilt, survival and what it actually means to be an “honorable” person during horrific times. As a reader you start to question your own actions and begin to see society’s intense need to judge the past as inherently flawed.

Faithful ExecutionerThe Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel Harrington
Based on a personal journal from Renaissance Germany, this book is the story of Meister Franz Schmidt who was the executioner of Nuremberg from 1573 to 1618. As you can imagine, there are some pretty gruesome details involved in the telling of this story, execution by “the wheel” is not a pretty sight, but the author endeavors to fill out a full sketch of the man and his times and reserve judgment.

Franz Schmidt was actually born into a family of executioners, the odious profession was forced upon his father by an unscrupulous aristocrat, and he had few options to pursue other careers since the profession was considered unclean and inherited. In fact, his whole life’s goal was to ensure that his own family could somehow get out from under the social stigma and transition into a more respectable profession.

In addition to the personal drama of Schmidt’s life, the author paints a vivid portrait of his times describing how the executioner and the citizens of Nuremberg lived day-to-day. While death was all around, in the form of a high infant mortality rate and periodic deadly disease outbreaks, crime and punishment were considered issues of the utmost importance. In the end, the author finds more similarities than are comfortable to admit between our ideas and the attitudes of those who walked the streets of Meister Schmidt’s Nuremberg.

His final conclusion rings true as an assessment of the figures in both books:

Perhaps, in a cruel and capricious world, there is hope to be found in one man defying his fate, overcoming universal hostility, and simply persevering amid a series of personal tragedies.

Richard