What would you do with a live rooster?

Sophie SmithHow do you feel about March Madness? I’ve never watched much basketball, but I do love brackets. So much so that I’ll happily play along as other topics get a chance to battle it out in a quest to become the best of the best.

One of my favorite matchups to watch is The Morning News’ Tournament of Books. They pick the best books of the year and pair them up for smart, funny, and devoted judges to weigh their merits.

Usually I am pretty good at predicting and reading the books that will meet up. This year, I had read only three going into the competition, so I didn’t have a clear winner in my mind. I read two others during the course of the battle, both of which I enjoyed immensely, though neither won the top prize—a live rooster.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson had a scrappy start in the battle, playing its way in through a pretournament round and then being reincarnated through a zombie poll.

Life After Life

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is available from the library in hardcover, large print, audiobook on CD, and downloadable audiobook.

Atkinson’s newest novel traces the life of Ursula as she tries to survive the perilous years from her birth in 1910 to her deaths at various points in the 20th century. After each fatal encounter, whether it be a childhood accident or the Blitz, Ursula comes back to life and gets another shot.

At first, I was concerned about this book. I had read another of Atkinson’s books last year and it was not at all my cup of tea. However, the historical fiction and the manipulation of her personal story engaged me throughout.

Atkinson doesn’t portray her characters as nice or kind or good; everyone is complex and every iteration shows just how one interaction can impact the rest of history.

A Tale for the Time Being

“A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki is available from the library in hardcover and downloadable audiobook.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki also portrays a complicated relationship with geography, personal history, and time narratives.

The story is in fact two. One is the diary of Nao, a teenage girl living in Japan, and the other is Ruth, a middle-aged woman living in a remote part of British Colombia who comes across a mysterious package washed ashore.

Ruth, herself a writer, delves into the well-wrapped Hello Kitty lunchbox she has discovered on the beach.  The package includes not only Nao’s diary, but also a series of letters in Japanese, a diary in French, and a rare wristwatch.

It’s not a pretty story—Nao’s life as a 16-year-old raised in the US and now trying to transition to life back in Japan is filled with cruelty that only teenagers can inflict, and Ruth is dealing with her own complicated issues with writer’s block, small-town nosiness, and fear of early Alzheimer’s. The story is magical, rich, and utterly captivating.

Both books are wonderful and played well against stiff competition in the Tournament of Books. The winner ended up being James McBride (former Nashua Reads author) with his new book The Good Lord Bird. I have not yet read it, but it’s back to the top of my list.

Last year’s winner—The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson—turned out to be one of my favorites, and I look forward to seeing how the judges did this year. We have all the books that were in the tournament, so come check them out and tell me which won it for you!

About Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith is the supervisor of teen services at the Nashua Public Library and can also frequently be found at the reference desk. As a history and Spanish major at Kenyon College she spent a year in Salamanca, Spain. She earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

Me, Myself, and Why

Inga Dellea-MessnerJust think for a minute: What is, and what makes, your identity?

Me, Myself and Why

“Me, Myself, and Why” by Jennifer Ouellette is available from the library in hardcover.

Is it physical appearance? Inclinations and propensities? Whether we’re good at math or reading?

Are we what we seem, or what we see in the mirror? Can we be the virtual selves we create online? Can I truly be a male if I’m born female?

How much of me is determined by genes vs. society vs. my environment?

How does my mind work?

In her mind-boggling Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self,  Jennifer Oullette approaches identity from these angles and others. She discusses genes; gender and sexual orientation; outward relations with other people and even with objects, real and virtual. She also discusses the effects psychedelic drugs such as LSD have on one’s concept of self and what drugs can show us about the “I” in general.

I opened the book hoping to find life-changing answers about myself, my life, and love. I was thrilled to encounter not impractical, overgeneralized pseudoscience but a literary journey through the messy and winding maze that is the human “I.”

This book is jam-packed with knowledge and perfect for the scientific mind, but you need not fear if you have no background in psychology. I advise you to take your time, though! She gives a LOT to digest. That being said, I found Oullette’s writing extremely clear and remarkably succinct.

A personal journey
The author also maintains a balance between personal anecdote, subjective analysis, and raw fact.

For much of the book, Oullette takes the reader by the hand on her own expedition.  In her words:

You want to know who I am?
Let me tell you a story . . .

And so she does. We accompany her through discoveries about her birth parents, having her brain mapped, psychological testing, LSD trips, her one and only binge-drinking experience . . . even the loss of a dear friend. She’s just too smart to expect us to “get” the science of  identity without disclosing a little of herself.

So whether you’re a budding psychologist or simply introspective, new to the science of self or already immersed, be sure to give Me, Myself, and Why a try. You could be pleasantly surprised at what you may not have pondered—yet.

[Editor's note: Today we welcome Inga Dellea-Messner as a Next Great Read reviewer. Also, mark your calendar for Wednesday, April 16: From 12 noon to 5 pm you can go to www.facebook. com/nashuapubliclibrary, post the titles of three books you've enjoyed, and our librarians will suggest a book for you to read next.]

About Inga Dellea-Messner

Library Assistant Inga Dellea-Messner grew up in Windham and Hudson. She worked at the Rodgers Memorial Library for seven years before becoming a library assistant at the Nashua Public Library. On her way to earning her bachelor’s degree from Keene State, she spent five months studying French in Bretagne (Brittany).

In search of Cambodia’s holy grail

lost memories cover

“Map of Lost Memories” is available from the library in hardcover and downloadable audio.

Jen HindererI like a book that makes me feel like I’m being followed.

Set in 1925, Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay is packed with intrigue. Irene Blum sets off on an expedition into the jungles of Cambodia in search of the “holy grail” of Cambodian art collectors, a set of copper scrolls inscribed with the history of the Khmer people that have been the source of rumor and speculation for decades.

Irene spends years working alongside her mentor at the Brooke Museum in Seattle, locating and acquiring pieces of cultural history from across the globe. But she lacks the sophistication and formal education to be a major force in the field and gets passed over for her dream job as curator of the Brooke.

Instead of taking this setback quietly, Irene sets out alone to the Far East to find the legendary scrolls, bring them back to the US, and create her legacy in the art world: a museum of the Khmer people with the long-lost copper scrolls as the foundation of the collection.

Of course it’s not that simple. Even the people she has enlisted to help her have their own plans for the scrolls that don’t include Irene or a flight over the Pacific Ocean.

Irene is naive and bold, qualities that she sees as an asset but that continually threaten her quest and leave the reader worrying if she’ll survive the next leg of her journey!

This is Fay’s first novel, and she has written a compelling book full of suspense. After listening to it for just an hour in the car I found myself looking over my shoulder in shops as if I, like Irene, were being tailed everywhere I went.

If you’ve already read this book and are looking for more exotic adventures like this one, please leave me a note in the comments or email me at jennifer.hinderer@nashualibrary.org.

About Jen Hinderer

Jen Hinderer is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

This Is Your Brain on Music

Rebecca NugentWho’s more qualified to write a book called This is Your Brain on Music than a neuroscientist/musician/recording engineer/producer who’s worked with the Grateful Dead, Blue Oyster Cult, and Stevie Wonder?

Probably no one.

Author Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, has written a cogent and comprehensive look at how music effects the human brain and why we respond to it so deeply.

This Is Your Brain on Music

“This Is Your Brain on Music” is available from the library in hardcover.

The book includes extensive research done on the subject, much of which has come out of Levitin’s Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill.

However, the book is not at all dry and is very accessible to those unfamiliar with scientific jargon or the structure of music. The author intersperses his big ideas with anecdotes and references to popular music.

He starts with a primer on music theory. Concepts like pitch and harmony are broken down for the layman in an easily understood way.

Levitin then dives in more deeply, exploring concepts like why music is an important and ubiquitous part of human culture, what drives musical preferences, and what exactly makes a person into a musician.

If this book sounds interesting, check it out here. You may also like Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and How Music Works by David Byrne. In addition, the library owns Daniel Levitin’s more recent work, The World in Six Songs.

About Rebecca Nugent

Rebecca Nugent is the electronic resources librarian at Nashua Public Library. She studied anthropology and English at Rutgers University and earned her master's in library science from Indiana University.

My film picks for 2013

Loren RossonNow that most of last year’s films are available on DVD, it’s a great time to catch up on anything you missed in the theater. Here’s my pick list for 2013. I’m afraid The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug isn’t on it; that was by far the most disappointing. My top choice is a foreign film: Blue is the Warmest Color. It’s even longer than The Hobbit, but I didn’t want it to end.

1. Blue is the Warmest Color. It’s a bit sad that this film has gained notoriety for the graphic lesbian scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself in wildly adolescent terms. The film isn’t about sex in any case, but the power of love which becomes overwhelming and destructive yet leaves room for later healing. After the break-up Emma is able to forgive and Adele to obtain at least some measure of closure. The film is three hours long but I wanted it to go longer. Listen to Mark Kermode’s review to gauge whether or not the film will be to your liking.

2. The East. An ecoterrorist thriller. Brit Marling plays an undercover investigator for a corporate firm, and Ellen Page plays one of the anarchists being spied on. She’s the daughter of a petrochemical CEO and the most radical of the rebels, even willing to force her father to bathe in the waterway he’s been using as a toxic dumping site. It’s obviously the perfect role for Page, who once played a young teen who trapped and tortured a pedophile in his own home (Hard Candy). The ecoterrorists get in some nasty payback, and it’s huge fun, but it’s the director’s understanding of interpersonal dynamics in fringe groups that make this film so good.

3. Europa Report. This was a good year for outer-space dramas, and don’t be put off by rumors of Europa’s quasi-documentary approach. The film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror a film like this should. Six astronauts embark on a mission to Europa, the moon of Jupiter most likely to support life. This film makes you want to walk on the ice moon, and the luminous organism revealed in the final frame will stay with you forever.

4. The Conjuring. This is one of the rare occasions I disagree with my favorite film critic, Mark Kermode, especially about a horror film (his favorite genre like mine). His review is worth watching for his relentless complaining about obnoxious audience behavior. It’s very amusing, but he apparently thinks that all the theatergoers he sat with at The Conjuring were not horror fans, and that’s the reason they were so terrified while he was not. I have to honestly say parts of this film seriously scared me, and I’m as hard-core a horror fan as he is. Judge for yourself.

5. Before Midnight. I love these conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine. They first met in Before Sunrise (1995) and then found each other again in Before Sunset (2004). Now they’ve been in a relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed are just as compelling, and so organically delivered by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy that it’s dazzling. Here they arrive at a hotel, have a nasty argument, and entertain breaking up, fearing their direction in life. As in the prequels, the conclusion is satisfying but open-ended.

6. The Day of the Doctor. It had a theatrical run so I’m calling it a film. Doctor Who’s 50th-anniversary special is the best multi-Doctor special in the show’s history, and doesn’t rely on cheap resets when rewriting time. The Doctor has been drowning in guilt over his war crimes for seven seasons and decides to undo his decision. The solution is shrewd, and the interactions between David Tennant, Matt Smith–and the surprise incarnation of John Hurt–are splendid.

7. The Impossible. If you really want to see what a tsunami does to people, watch this scene from the film. Tsunamis are chaotic, filthy-brown, relentless forces of mass destruction, and this is the first movie to portray one with such upsetting accuracy. It’s based on a true account of an English family vacationing in Thailand in 2004, when the Indian Ocean earthquake struck. The tsunami separates the family, and the mother (played brilliantly by Naomi Watts) barely survives. Brilliant performances from everyone, including the children.

8. Gravity. I’m not a big fan of 3D, but once in a while comes a film that demands it, and this is one of them. Gravity affected me in the way I wanted Apollo 13 to back in the 1990s, underscoring the vacuous, beautiful silence of outer space, punctuated with assaults from flying shrapnel and mechanical failures at the right moments. It’s a visually perfect film–and yes, still very good without 3D if you missed it in the theater.

9. The Place Beyond the Pines. This examination of the bonds between fathers and sons is divided into three acts. The first is Ryan Gosling’s character, a stunt-biker who turns to robbing banks to provide for an infant son, until he’s shot by a cop. The second act focuses on that cop, who while a hero finds himself playing Serpico surrounded by dirty colleagues. The final act is set 15 years later, with the sons of the criminal and cop becoming friends not knowing their father’s histories with each other. It may sound contrived, but it toys cleverly with themes of fate and genetic predisposition.

10. The Wolf of Wall Street. I love Martin Scorsese, and while I don’t think this is one of his masterpieces, it’s a guilty pleasure of his indulgences gone wild. It examines the life of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played by Leo DiCaprio) and his worship of money, chauvinistic womanizing, and drug addiction. As always with Scorsese, the dialogue alone is a roller-coaster. (By now everyone and their mother knows that this film broke the record for having the most F-bombs in any movie.) Mark Kermode, who also likes Scorsese films, has strong reservations, and he makes a good point about the entirely unsympathetic characters. Though I would say that’s much the point.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Is the Civil War over?

Sophie SmithGrowing up in Maine, I felt pretty confident that what I learned about the Civil War was true. And I was totally confident that it was over.

I mean, we’ve made it as a nation for an additional 150 years, I think you can call that a done deal.

But last week I picked up Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, and learned just how misguided I may have been.

Confederates in the Attic

“Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz is available from the library in hardcover.

Unhealed fractures
Horwitz builds on his childhood fascination with the Civil War to explore its lasting effects in the southern United States. He meets up with hardcore Civil War reenactors, talks to members of the Daughters of the Confederacy, and traipses around battlefields with everyone from racist crackpots to foreign genealogists. Throughout his grand tour, he meets people who still feel the historical fracture between the economically sound, elitist North, and the agriculturally based, populist, states’ rights-focused South.

The book is written in long vignettes that focus on a particular group of people or an event within each of the southern states. While each part adds to the whole, each can also stand alone, making this an easy book to put down and return to if you don’t have time for a prolonged read. It also makes a surprisingly good beach read—it’s certainly not the dry Civil War history you may have been force fed in high school.

Not what I learned in school
What was remarkable to me about this book was how much the sentiments Horwitz uncovered differed from my own.

Towards the end of the book, he visits with some high school classrooms currently studying the Civil War and finds the way the information is taught to vary greatly—depending on, to a large extent, the racial composition of the classroom.

Which brings me back to my own question—did I learn the true history of the Civil War in Northern New England? Do students in the Deep South get the truth? What about Pennsylvania or Virginia or a state with communities who could land on either side of the debate?

We have hundreds of books on the Civil War in the library, and as the 150th anniversary of this event continues, you should check them out. I know I’ll be in the stacks, trying to find answers.

About Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith is the supervisor of teen services at the Nashua Public Library and can also frequently be found at the reference desk. As a history and Spanish major at Kenyon College she spent a year in Salamanca, Spain. She earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

Abandoning a child–and getting away with it?

Carol Luers EymanThe first question you’ll ask when reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is, Why did Rosemary Cooke’s parents abandon her sister Fern at the age of 5?

And the second is, How did they get away with it?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves book jacket

“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler is available from the library in hardcover and in large print.

You’ll get a pretty good answer on page 77, when a key plot point is revealed.

The New York Times review of this book revealed this secret, albeit with a spoiler alert upfront. But I’m going to keep you in the dark. I want you to read the book the way Fowler intended.

What I will tell you is that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an engaging, inventive story told by its narrator Rosemary in a sometimes confusing and deceptive way. Only gradually does she divulge the details of her family’s life over the past 40 years.

The father is a psychology professor at Indiana University who studies chimpanzees and can’t control his drinking; the mother, who could be loosely called his research assistant, becomes distant from her remaining children. Once Fern is gone, the parents leave the others in the dark about her fate. Rosemary’s older brother rebels by running away to join the world of militant animal-rights activism.

So we are left to sympathize with Rosemary. She carries physical and emotional scars from the loss of Fern, and from being thrown into her parents’ experiments in a most unorthodox way. In the end, Fowler leaves us with some hope, at least for Rosemary, her mother, and Fern, as they begin to reunite and reconcile.

Pick up the book from the library today. And no fair peeking at page 77.

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

Murder most morbid

Jen Hinderer My assumptions about The Black Country by Alex Grecian were quickly proved wrong when little Hilde Rose peeked into a bird’s nest and grasped what she thought was an egg but turned out to be a human eyeball.

I picked this book off our new-fiction shelf expecting it to be an ordinary “police procedural” set in England. I read many of these murder mysteries that follow the work of detectives in solving crimes. I like the comforting patterns of evidence-gathering and interviewing of suspects and the admittedly fictional view into the life of a detective.

That scene with the bird’s nest is the ideal opening for what turns out to be an eerie novel in which the reader is aware that the children know more than any adult about the crime and an entire village appears to be trying to thwart the detectives.

Black Country is available at the library in hardcover

“Black Country” by Alex Grecian is available at the library in hardcover.

Grecian’s novel takes place in the coal-mining village of Blackhampton in 1890, just after Scotland Yard struggled with the ultimately unsolvable Jack the Ripper murders.

Two detectives are sent to help the local police find the missing Price family members: both parents and baby Oliver have been missing for weeks, and the discovery of the eyeball leads everyone to believe the worst about what happened to them.

Tales of monsters
However, instead of welcoming the detectives, the villagers act frightened and offer nothing but vague threats and stories from a nursery rhyme about monsters in the mines. Throughout the book Grecian does an excellent job of letting the reader know secrets held by the remaining Price children, making them seem sinister and malevolent.

Grecian has written a marvelous detective story in the police procedural style that I love, made even better by including England’s first forensic pathologist, the real-life Dr. Bernard Kingsley, and his state-of-the-art techniques.

If you like this kind of mystery I also recommend anything by Ruth Rendell or Val McDermid, who set a similar spooky and eerie mood in their novels.

Looking for more recommendations? Leave a comment below or email me at Jennifer.Hinderer@nashualibrary.org.

About Jen Hinderer

Jen Hinderer is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

Bunch of Amateurs

Rebecca Nugent[Editor's note: Today we welcome Rebecca Nugent to our roster of Next Great Read reviewers.]

What do Benjamin Franklin, Mark Zuckerberg, and the painter and birder David Allen Sibley have in common?

Bunch of Amateurs book jacket

“Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character” by Jack Hitt is available from the library in hardcover.

They are three examples of the amateur spirit that author Jack Hitt considers the heart of the American character. In Bunch of Amateurs, he argues that amateurism has been a driving force behind American progress since the nation was founded.

Hitt introduces us to amateur scientists and inventors of all types– astronomers, paleontologists, even DIY biologists. These characters may at times seem like eccentrics or even oddballs, but they are always defined by a single-minded obsession with the truth as they see it. In some cases, they are right.

At the center of each story is the push and pull relationship between amateurism and professionalism. Amateurs may see professionals as constrained by their own assumptions, unable to examine new ideas without engrained prejudices. Professionals may see amateurs as uncredentialed hooligans, not worthy of attention.

Hitt introduces this dichotomy through an entertaining and comic story about John Adams and Benjamin Franklin that illustrates the clash between those who value knowledge most and those who value inventiveness most.

You may recognize Jack Hitt’s name from his many contributions to NPR’s This American Life. You may also know him from his contributions to The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, or Rolling Stone. Readers who do know his work will not be surprised that Bunch of Amateurs is a funny and charming account, full of wonder, interesting ideas, and engaging characters. Check out a copy and enjoy!

About Rebecca Nugent

Rebecca Nugent is the electronic resources librarian at Nashua Public Library. She studied anthropology and English at Rutgers University and earned her master's in library science from Indiana University.

Garth grapples with ghastly gods

Loren RossonOne of my favorite books in high school was The Seven Altars of Dusarra, by Lawrence Watt-Evans.

It’s a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the second in a quartet called The Lords of Dus. The Lure of the Basilisk is the first, The Sword of Bheleu the third, and The Book of Silence the fourth. The third and fourth volumes are really good, too, but none so fired my imagination like the second.

The Seven Altars of Dusarra

“The Seven Altars of Dusarra” will soon be available from the library in paperback. Click the graphic to place a hold.

The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, who is sent to a faraway city to rob the temples of some nasty cults. Planning isn’t his forte. You wouldn’t hire this guy for secrecy or low profile. He stumbles blindly into situations and relies on hack-and-slash. He kills people and then regrets it. He calls forth a citywide manhunt and has to sleep in horse stalls to avoid arrest. He’s a morally ambiguous figure like Conan, and the world he inhabits is like those of the classic pulp fantasies–decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards.

The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the moon), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death).

The cults are chilling if not outright ghastly. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them.

Garth gets into big trouble with the priests of Aghad, who plot an ugly revenge that carries into the fourth book. In another temple he commits an appalling massacre–I’d forgotten how much blood he spills without a second thought to get what he needs.

I’d also forgotten how good these stories are; it’s been a treat to reread them.

In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented  “brutal fantasy,” but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of pulp fantasy (also known as sword-and-sorcery fantasy) and brought them into high fantasy. Game of Thrones has the high epic sweep of Lord of the Rings, but it also has the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of pulps like The Seven Altars of Dusarra.

I need to revisit more of these pulps. I’m sure I still have them in boxes somewhere.

Check out the Lords of Dus series. If you like what you read, try these next:

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.