This Century’s Greatest Injustice

Inga Dellea-MessnerI consider myself privileged, compared to many. I’ve received a splendid education. So why is it that I had no idea of the worst horror of our times, discussed in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: systemic misogyny practiced by cultures and governments?

Did you know that:

Half the Sky

“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn is available from the library in hardcover.

-more of the world’s women have died in the last 50 years simply because they were women, than all of the soldiers in all the battles of the 20th century

-“far more women are shipped into brothels each year in the early 21st century than African slaves were shipped into plantations each year in the 18th or 19th centuries–although the overall population was of course far smaller then”

- one woman in the world dies every minute due to a lack of care during pregnancy and childbirth

I have no statistics on rape, the numbers are so immeasurable. In much of the world it is a time-honored way of life. In some countries, the police gang-rape victims who report attacks! (The book gives many examples of this.)

Most of the brutal facts in Half the Sky are presented through real-life, heart-wrenching stories. Mahabouba Muhammad’s is one of the most moving.

Married off and impregnated at the age of 13, she developed a fistula in delivery, as often happens to young girls after long, obstructed labor. It left her leaking excrement, so the villagers abandoned her in an open hut so hyenas would eat her at night. This incredible woman took a stick, and–at the edge of death’s door–beat off the hyenas. She then proceeded to drag herself for miles to the nearest hospital. Eventually, she even became a nurse, helping other girls in the same predicament.

This story illustrates a central premise of Half the Sky: Women are not the world’s problem, but the solution. Read it and your gut will seize, your fists will clench, your blood will boil. These problems are unpalatable, incomprehensible to most of us. But the book nonetheless thrusts them at us and says: “Do something!”

I hope you will– even if it’s no more than picking up this book and informing yourself.

Please, please, hop on the ship of reality with me. You can begin by watching this TED Talk about the revolutionary Half the Sky movement.

 

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).

A family haunted

 The Fate of Mercy Alban

“The Fate of Mercy Alban” is available from the library in paperback, ebook, and downloadable audio versions.

Jen McCormackThe Fate of Mercy Alban  by Wendy Webb is a terrific haunted house novel rife with family secrets and unexplained events.

Set on the shores of Lake Superior, the story unfolds in the mansion built by the Alban family at the turn of the 20th century, after they made their fortune in shipping.

The local university is giving tours of the home now, but the Alban family still lives there and continues to wield influence in the community.

When Grace Alban’s mother, Adele, dies, Grace is forced to return to the family home for the first time since the tragic death of her father 20 years earlier.

Her daughter Amity has visited almost every summer, but Grace has stayed away, hiding from painful memories. Settling her mother’s estate, Grace finds a packet of letters that challenges everything she knew about her family’s history.

Grace’s search for the truth about her family leads her through hidden passageways  into secret vaults at the church and seems to awaken ghosts  that have been living in the walls of this old house since Aunt Mercy died and left her twin sister Faith behind in 1935. Even Adele’s death due to a heart problem suddenly doesn’t seem so ordinary, and Grace begins to wonder if there was something supernatural at work the day her mother died.

Wendy Webb is a new author. This is only her second published novel, and it does have a few weaknesses, like an overload of plot twists that she has trouble wrapping up. But still she is a great storyteller and kept me interested up to the very last page.

Like most good books I read, this one reminded me of some others I have recommended to friends. If you love eerie novels about haunted houses try The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. If  family secrets and finding the truth are more your interest I highly recommend Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack 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.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Carol Luers EymanNot until they were past 90 did Roz Chast’s parents admit they were aging. (Of course, all of us are aging all the time, but hey, can’t we talk about something more pleasant?)

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” is available from the library in hardcover.

Chast, a New Yorker cartoonist and an only child, was herself guilty of postponing discussion of wills (living and dead), finances, and powers of attorney with her parents. When she finally introduced the topics, her parents’ response gave her the title of her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

She tells the story of her parents’ decline in her characteristic cartoon style, with wobbly line drawings whose characters exude neuroses.

Interspersed are pages of handwritten text, which makes the story feel more personal than the typeset font you’d find in a traditional memoir. A small set of photos documents the clutter she finds when she visits her parents “in their natural habitat” for the first time in 11 years. (One, showing three pairs of her mother’s old glasses, is particularly touching.)

She attempts to exculpate herself for neglecting to visit by describing their neighborhood:

“Not Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope or even Carroll Gardens. Not the Brooklyn of artists or hipsters or people who made–and bought–$8.00 chocolate bars. This was DEEP Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of people who have been left behind by everything and everyone.”

But she redeems herself by jumping into their lives with a level  of commitment familiar to any middle-aged adult whose parents are reaching the end of life.

The stories are familiar: her mother spends two weeks in the hospital with acute diverticulitis, returns home, insists on making breakfast for her husband the next morning, and takes a severe fall. When Chast decides it’s time to move them to a “Place” where they can get nursing assistance, they resist.

Particularly refreshing is Chast’s willingness to talk about the financial anxiety she experiences as their savings are deleted, not just by the sky-high rent at their  “Place” but also by the extras: full-time nursing assistance and hospice, not to mention the adult diapers, Ensure, and other supplies none of us want to acknowledge we may need ourselves one day.

Illness and death may not seem appropriate fodder for cartoons, but Chast masterfully renders scenes that are poignant, irritating, dramatic, as well as amusing, in a book you will consume in just two or three sittings.

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.

A corrupt cult controlling Calcutta

Loren RossonThe Kali cult depicted by Dan Simmons in Song of Kali is foul beyond words. (Forget the cartoonish portrayal in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.)

"Song of Kali" by Dan Simmons is available from the library in paperback.

“Song of Kali” by Dan Simmons is available from the library in paperback.

The Kāpālikas run Calcutta like the Mafia runs American cities. Businessmen by day, killers by night, they sacrifice people (including their own members) to make their goddess manifest on earth. Their evil seems to have somehow infected the stones and air of Calcutta; pain and hurt are the only language people understand.

The story is vile and depressing, but in an understated way that makes everything seem too real to be fictitious. There are no cheap thrills or victories against the Kali cult; no one is brought to justice; the cult goes on; the city of Calcutta sweats poverty, despair, and anger in endless cycles.

The story involves a magazine writer who is sent to Calcutta to obtain poetry supposedly written by a man who was thought to be long dead. He takes his wife and infant child (bad move) and becomes entangled with a gruesome cult that wields ugly power, apparently both natural and supernatural.

The writer is from my home state of New Hampshire, and some of his third-world encounters mirror my own in Africa. I was surprised by how strongly I identified with him, though of course I never ran afoul of anything like the cult of Kali.

Simmons is known for writing in many genres, and we have most of his books in the library collection. Only recently did I realize that we had never acquired this, his first novel. It’s in our collection now.

I consider Song of Kali the best thing Simmons ever wrote. Critics say that first novels often show authors at their most honest, writing without regard for anyone’s expectations, and this one fits that profile.

If you’re a horror guru who is hard to please–if you’re craving that rare novel that freaks you out in a completely new way–then I would strongly recommend Song of Kali.

 

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.

Got time?

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“The Time Keeper” by Mitch Albom is available from the library in hardcover, large print, and downloadable audiobook.

Inga Dellea-MessnerIn Mitch Albom’s novel The Time Keeper, three wayward souls learn the meaning of time through great trial, and greater error.

Dor–Father Time–discovers its existence and is the first to measure it. But when his wife is dying, rather than spend those last moments at her side, he goes off to find her more time to live.

For that, God banishes him to a cave, where he is forced to hear all mankind’s pleas for more time, less time, freeze time, save time, and he must learn to understand the plight he has wrought.

Among the pleas are those of Sarah Lemon and Victor Delamonte.

Sarah wants less time, ruing her own life when her heart is broken. Can’t it all just end? Victor rails against his own imminent end. Both are ready to go to extreme lengths to end or extend what time they have. Dor’s mission is to save them from their misguided urges. In the process, will he grasp the true meaning of his own discovery?

Don’t make Dor’s mistakes. For one day, tally how often you look at your watch. I doubt you will be surprised to discover that life is full of an insane amount of hustle and bustle, appointments and racing around to do goodness knows what. Anything worthwhile? In modern society, we micromanage every minute.

After taking your tally, ask yourself what percent of those tallies signaled some activity you’re actually glad you did. How many brought you any satisfaction, and how many of them will you even remember tomorrow? How much of your day consisted of you making the best of your time, rather than trying to cram as much into an hour as you possibly could?

Read this book, and you might just grow to accept what it is to get old, to truly live out your days and accept an allotted number of them.

 

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).

Sherlock on horseback

Holmes on the Range is available at the library in hardcover

“Holmes on the Range” by Steve Hockensmith is available at the library in hardcover.

Jen McCormackHolmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith is the first of a series of mysteries set in the Old West featuring the Amlingmeyer brothers Old Red and Big Red (aka Gustav and Otto).

The brothers aren’t big drinkers or card players but Big Red is lucky enough to know how to read and tell a great story, and whenever they can find  an issue of Harper’s Weekly, Otto reads the Sherlock Holmes stories out loud for his brother.

The famous detective’s adventures inspire Old Red to do some serious sleuthing of his own.

Their first case starts with a death that appears to be caused by a stampede but is really a murder case involving the wealthy and well-connected British family that own the Bar VR ranch in Montana. As the story unfolds the brothers get in a heap of trouble and make some dangerous enemies.

A distinct lack of law and order
If you’ve read my previous reviews you already know that I love novels set in the old American West. I love to read the stories of hardy and hard-working people making a life in rough circumstances while facing the challenges of the landscape (and frequently a distinct lack of law and order).

Hockensmith’s book incorporates all of those features and then adds in the trappings of a great detective novel. Suspense and intrigue abound as Old Red hunts for clues and follows leads to solve what turn out to be several murders on the Bar VR. Through it all Big Red is a hilarious narrator and assistant, keeping up a steady stream of witty commentary on their circumstances.

There are now five novels featuring the Amlingmeyers, and I’ve read three of them. (See the full list on Goodreads.) Big Red becomes something of a Dr. John Watson to his brother’s Sherlock: putting their adventures in writing and sending their stories to magazines for publication. There are train robberies, mysterious women, and gunfights in every story, and through all of it the brothers remain steadfastly loyal to each other. Each book is just as good as the first, and they are easily read out of order if you must, so don’t worry if you have to skip ahead to On the Wrong Track or The Black Dove.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack 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.

Local author roundup

Carol Luers EymanLorrie Thomson, who did a reading here last fall from Equilibrium, her book about a man with bipolar disorder, has just published another novel.

"What's Left Behind" by Lorrie Thomson

“What’s Left Behind” by Lorrie Thomson is available from the library in paperback.

I have not yet read What’s Left Behind, but Lorrie was kind enough to send her husband by with an advance copy. This book is about Abby Stone, who throws herself into running a bed and breakfast on the Maine Coast after the death of her 18-year-old son. Abby plans a backyard labyrinth as a memorial to him, which should be of interest to Nashua readers, since our Rotary Common Park on Main Street is the home of the first permanent Chartres Labyrinth in New Hampshire.

Another book that came across my desk is Troubadours and Troublemakers: The Evolution of American Protest Music. The author, Kevin Comtois, teaches at Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts. Since the speakers we had this summer from NECC (one talked about chocolate, one about old wives’ tales) were both super, I decided to ask Kevin to speak here, on February 12. His topic will be the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan.

"Angel Play" by Roy Goodman is available from the library in paperback.

“Angel Play” by Roy Goodman is available from the library in paperback.

Nashuan Roy Goodman’s novel, Angel Play, came out as an e-book several months back and is now available in paperback, too. Set in Boston and northern New Hampshire, Angel Play is the story of  17-year-old Angela Dawes, kidnapped by a Vietnam vet when he commandeers a cab and picks her up after her shift at a Brigham’s ice cream shop.

As in most kidnappings, the motivations of the criminal, while stated, are inscrutable to the law-abiding public. The story shifts among the points of view of Angie, her father, and various detectives. Angie was abandoned by her mother as a six-year-old and is beginning to come to terms with that through poetry and conversations with her elderly neighbor. She is the most believable and sympathetic of the characters in the novel. If you’ve lived or gone to school in Boston and you’re a fan of police procedurals, give this first-time local novelist a try.

Speaking of Roy Goodman, he and Penny Baert Zywusko will be reading their poetry at the Nashua Public Library this Saturday, October 18, at 4 pm as part of Art Walk Nashua. It’s open mike, so if you’d like to participate, come sign up between 3:30 pm and 4 pm.

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.

Why Literature Matters

Loren RossonLibrary Director Jen Hinderer recently gave Toni Morrison’s Home a glowing review, which not only inspired me to read it, but to reflect on what made me try her novels in the first place.

"Why Literature Matters" is available from the library in hardcover.

“Why Literature Matters” by Glenn Arbery is available from the library in hardcover.

Morrison’s genre isn’t usually my thing, but a strong case has been made for her novels being on par with classic literature. Glenn Arbery makes that argument in Why Literature Matters (2001), a book that wrestles with the question of transcendence and enduring value. It assesses modern authors whose works have been compared to literary giants and finds that while some authors deserve the praise, others do not.

Tom Wolfe
An example of the latter would be Tom Wolfe. Back in the 1990s A Man in Full was ranked alongside Honoré de Balzac, but Arbery finds the novel banal and journalistic.

I particularly like his observation that Wolfe’s fiction engages one’s attention in the same way that cocaine arouses pleasure, “using up the brain’s natural chemicals to such an extent, that, without the drug, the addict is left like the knight in John Keats’ poem, ‘all haggard and woe-begone'”; and that it’s impossible to quote from Wolfe “without feeling that he used plastic and neon for his sentences instead of more expensive materials.” And I would have to agree that Wolfe’s literary achievements are overrated.

Toni Morrison
On the other hand, Arbery believes that Toni Morrison’s novels–especially Beloved and Paradise–stand as first-rate examples of modern literature. Against her critics, he argues that her literary honors owe not from favor with modern liberalism, but rather the inherent achievements of her fiction:

“Impatient with ‘race’ as a supposed ontology, powerfully intelligent, Morrison does not promote the ‘black experience’ so much as she questions its meaning and locates it thoughtfully within an American literary tradition that prominently includes Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor . . . Morrison finds universal qualities with her subjects, because she chooses, not Us-vs-Them, but Us-vs-Us situations.”

Morrison doesn’t angrily demand social justice; she engages social drama and “tests dominant ideas by showing what happens when they unfold in plausible human action.” In this sense, Morrison achieves in her work what a writer like (say) Alice Walker does not.

Homer
Arbery takes on the ancients too. His final chapter on The Iliad (which he believes “the measure” of all western literature) is my favorite, being a visceral analysis of translations. He suggests that certain attempts to tame Homer’s ambiguities do the poem violence, ironically reducing it at the price of our clearer understanding.

None of this is to suggest that highbrow literature is the only thing worth reading, only that we should be careful about what we praise as such. Arbery’s book is a decent guide to making such assessments, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the enduring value of ancient and modern literature.

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.

One Hundred Names For Love

Inga Dellea-MessnerAfter I reviewed My Stroke of Insight a few months ago, a colleague suggested that I read Diane Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love.

The book is a biography, written by his wife, about accomplished author Paul West, who suffered a severe stroke in the linguistic left hemisphere. Diane is a famous author as well, so much of their love was adorned with linguistic puns and “word-cuddling.”

One Hundred Names for Love

“One Hundred Names for Love” by Diane Ackerman is available from the library in hardcover, large print, and audiobook on CD and MP3 CD.

Aphasia is one of the worst things that could have happened, not only to Paul but to his decades-old marriage. The book illustrates (perhaps in excess) their struggle to preserve the relationship, love’s durability, and the many unorthodox recovery methods Diane tried.

I admit that I found the first half of this book tedious. Ackerman somehow fills over 150 pages with one basic message: “I’m miserable, he’s miserable. I pity him, I pity myself.” However, I will say she does this masterfully. Her vocabulary is robust and inspiring; but it is overwhelming.

Outsmarting the speech therapists
That being said, I was enthralled by Part Two. The language guru in me went wild! Here, Diane finds that while Paul cannot access words like ”chair” or “checkbook” from his once-staggering lexicon, he is outsmarting his own speech therapists. Even though his simple childhood language is hopelessly mangled, much of his complex adult vocabulary is still there.

A therapist shows him a picture of two cherubs, looking for the word “angels,” and Paul says, ”cherubim.” A few days later, he uses a geometry term, “tesseract,”  to describe a telephone. But his therapists, unfamiliar with these linguistic gems, dismiss them as nonsense.

Once she realizes this, Diane completely revamps his therapy, and language once again becomes an outlet for Paul’s innate brilliance and creativity. Language we never even imagined is easier for him than simple associations like drawing a line from the word “fruit” to an apple, so how could he not need an individualized plan?

The resilience and the resourceful, out-of-the-box thinking employed by these people reinforced much of what I learned in basic linguistics, but in ways I’d never imagined. I found it to be, overall, a brilliant, evocative feast for the heart and mind. I sincerely hope you will give it a go.

A word about Paul
Sadly, as I was reading this book and preparing to write this review, our library’s network administrator, Paul Lacroix, was struck by his second, and eventually fatal, stroke. While reading, I paused for a moment of silence his wife had requested that everyone take one day during his ordeal. It was difficult but enlightening to be reading about the very struggle my own colleague had endured in his poststroke years, and I consider myself blessed for the regrettably few encounters I had with him. This book has helped me sympathize more deeply for his wife and family. He is and always will be cherished by all who knew him.

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).

Mrs. Somebody Somebody

Carol Luers EymanIf you’re lucky you have a friend like Judy H. Whenever she and I get together, the conversation quickly turns to books we’ve loved and hated lately. And 90 percent of the time, we agree.

"Mrs Somebody Somebody" by Tracy Winn is available at the library in hardcover.

“Mrs Somebody Somebody” by Tracy Winn is available at the library in hardcover.

So when she offered to loan me a copy of Mrs. Somebody Somebody by Tracy Winn during a visit this summer, I jumped on it.

Structured as a series of related short stories, the book is about life in Lowell, Mass., from 1947, when the bustling downtown mills were prospering, to 2005, when the mills that remain are museums.

In the first story we meet Stella, a “man-crazy” knitter at Hub Hosiery Mill. “My dream was to marry a good-looking man with enough money to set me up in my own shop,” she says, to become “Mrs. Somebody Somebody.”

In the last, we find out how that turned out for her.

In between the author paints a stark picture of the lives of other residents of Lowell, some known to Stella, some past her time; some struggling, some privileged.

When thugs beat a man to death for the crime of setting up a union-information table, we remember why we enacted labor laws. When once-cute little Frankie, grandson of the mill owner, grows up to break into his parents’ home and raid the liquor cabinet, we aren’t all that sympathetic. When a Brazilian immigrant’s son—feared dead in a roadside attack in Iraq—turns out to have “only” lost a hand, we are relieved.

If you liked Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs, or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, try Mrs. Somebody Somebody. And then pass it on to a friend.

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.