Living by the sword

Loren RossonIt’s 1868, the year of Spain’s Glorious Revolution, and Don Jaime is appalled at the rise of guns in Spanish society. He considers them dishonorable weapons and symptomatic of a wider cultural malaise.

In The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Don Jaime, a fencing instructor, is an old guy set in his old-fashioned ways. He disdains politics, having no more use for monarchists than revolutionaries.

The book is a murder mystery but also a character study of ethics and honor. The result is a cross of suspense and existentialism that few writers can pull off without making the genre seem disjointed.

Fencing_finalmech

“The Fencing Master” by Arturo Perez-Reverte is available from the library in hardcover.

Don Jaime’s home resembles a museum. He displays his blades everywhere, and trains students mercilessly in a dying art form. He wants to keep alive illusions of perfection and pure sacrifice, as if there ever was (or ever is) a golden age of ethical values.

He justifies his isolationism with some interesting philosophy. For instance, when accused of being lonely:

“Loneliness has a kind of fascination; it’s a state of egotistical, inner grace that you can achieve only by standing guard on old, forgotten roads that no one travels anymore.” (p. 77)

Unfortunately, his superior attitudes don’t help much when he’s suddenly ensnared in a web of political conspiracy and murder, and must solve a puzzle involving treasonous letters between government officials.

Fencing jargon
The fight sequences are thrilling, though sometimes blurred by esoteric descriptions. I sure as hell didn’t know how to visualize a “thrust in quarte” or a “parry in octave” or a “lunge in tierce.” But it didn’t really matter; I still got the gist of what was going on in the duels.

Then there is the femme fatale. Deadly seducers can be cliche, but Doña Adela de Otero is used brilliantly. It’s impossible to predict her motives as she trains under Don Jaime, challenges his philosophy in unsettling ways, then up and vanishes, re-entering the narrative when you least expect her to.

The Fencing Master shows a man holding to rigid codes of honor. Don Jaime’s is a futile protest against progressive tides sweeping onto Spain, but a noble one, and a gesture that left me pondering the way people reinvent the past to shield themselves from cultural evolution.

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.

My Stroke of Insight

Inga Dellea-MessnerImagine your own personal apocalypse strikes. Your mind, your body – your whole selfbecomes a blank slate.

What would you recreate?

In her mind-altering book, My Stroke of Insight, neuroscientist Jill Taylor discusses this question, forced on her by a severe stroke. She describes both her stroke and her recovery. Yet she makes this journey not a tragedy but an awakening, an opportunity!

My Stroke of Insight

“My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor is available from the library in hardcover, large print, and downloadable audiobook.

Jill’s stroke compromised the left side of her brain, leaving her with no language, no math, and no sense of self. In basic terms, the left side of your brain makes sense of the input your right brain sends it.

Infancy redux
The left brain is what many would call your “thinking” mind. It houses your ego, self-awareness, and your “brain chatter” (that little voice in your head that never shuts up). And it’s the source of any sort of analytical thought, or memory of who you are. So if your left brain is wiped out, you’re suddenly an infant, experiencing the world for the very first time.

However, because of her stroke Jill also discovered something amazing.

“In the absence of my left hemisphere’s judgement, I was completely entranced by feelings of tranquility, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.”

The right side of our brain is what allows us to really experience life. The right mind, according to her, is pure joy, peace, and acceptance. Freed of her left mind, she says,

“my perception of my physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air. I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle. The energy of my spirit seemed to flow like a great whale gliding through a sea of silent euphoria. Finer than this finest of pleasures we can experience as physical beings, this absence of physical boundary was one of glorious bliss.”

Achieving nirvana
Jill describes the aftermath of the stroke as reaching nirvana. And after nirvana, she was able to choose which aspects of her left mind to “reinstate.” She no longer accepted anger, anxiety, or arbitrary judgment, and she could regain her cognizance without rekindling things that felt bad.

I must admit, her trippy epiphanies were a bit difficult to wrap my head around, but I still learned so much!

A colleague recommended My Stroke of Insight to me when I told her my grandmother had had a stroke, so I was emotionally invested in reading it. However, the most important message I took away (after discovering it had not actually been a stroke that put my grandmother in the hospital) was not mere facts. It was truly a stroke of insight.

This book caused me to stop worrying for one day about money, a mooching roommate, and clothes strewn all over my floor. Instead I relaxed at the beach and caught a movie with my boyfriend.

I bet it would allow you, too, to savor the popcorn!

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).

The Signature of All Things

Carol Luers EymanI don’t  go for spiritual self-help memoirs, so I ignored the hype a few years back and never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s hugely popular Eat, Pray, Love.

But I heard an equal amount of hype last year about her newest novel, The Signature of All Things, from reviewers whose opinions usually mesh with mine. So I gave it a try.

The Signature of All Things

“The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert is available from the library in hardcover, e-book, downloadable audiobook, and audiobook on CD.

The first part of the novel is the story of Henry Whittaker, born to poverty in the 1700s, then sent off to sea with Captain Cook on his way to making a fortune in botanical pharmaceuticals.

You need to know Henry’s story to appreciate the more-absorbing tale of the book, which is the life of his daughter Alma, an accomplished botanist who specializes in mosses and gets far less recognition in her field than she deserves. So I ask you to persevere through Henry’s first 50 pages, because after that you’ll be hooked.

Alma is educated in the sciences by her father, who invites her from a very young age to share the dinner table at his Philadelphia estate with intellectuals from all over.

Alma is educated in the ways of the flesh by books of erotica she happens upon in one of many private libraries acquired by her father from financially ruined acquaintances.

Tahitian travels
But Alma is not lucky in love, and although she is married briefly late in life, it doesn’t turn out well. She sends her husband to Tahiti, ostensibly to manage her father’s vanilla plantation, but actually as a way out of the marriage.

Later she travels to Tahiti herself, enduring brutal conditions at sea, in an effort to better understand her husband’s most-unusual beliefs. While there, she continues her botanical investigations and eventually develops her own theory of evolution, although Darwin beats her to publication (a reminder here: this is fiction).

Although I’m no botanist or historian of science, the book seemed to me very well-researched. Not only does reading it give you get a feel for the daily work of a botanist, you also get the opportunity to learn some archaic dirty words and a few tidbits about the history of science. (Did you know that it wasn’t until the 1800s that the term “scientist” came in to use? Before that, it was thought too similar in sound to “atheist” and the preferred title was “natural philosopher.”)

Gilbert’s prose is engrossing and exceptionally readable, even with its occasionally unfamiliar 19th-century vocabulary (the contents of a “valise” play a major role in the plot, as does the act of “coupling”). After spending a week with writing this masterful, I just might pick up Eat, Pray, Love.

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.

Dinosaur in a Haystack

Rebecca Nugent[Editor's note: Our Adult Summer Reading Program, Literary Elements, has a science theme this year, so our Next Great Read reviewers are recommending several science books over the next few months. For more about the Adult Summer Reading Program, click here.]

From 1974, almost until he died in 2002, Stephen Jay Gould wrote 300 consecutive essays for Natural History magazine, once a month, missing not a one.

Dinosaur in a Haystack: Reflections in Natural History is the seventh of ten collections of these exceptional essays, and one of my favorites.

Dinosaur in a Haystack

“Dinosaur in a Haystack” by Stephen Jay Gould is available from the library in hardcover.

A look at the extensive index provided in this collection will give you an idea of the breadth of subjects touched upon in these essays. Gould discusses evolution, snails, whales, museums, extinction, the dumbing down of science, theme parks, the millennium, movies, eugenics, and many other issues.

Finding science in Shakespeare, Poe, and Tennyson
References to literature abound, including reflections on Shakespeare and Poe. In one essay, he argues that Mary Shelley’s comments about human nature in Frankenstein have a biological and evolutionary component. In another, he analyses Tennyson’s In Memoriam in relation to science’s inability to provide us with answers about morality and grief.

As varied as these entertaining and informative essays are, at the center of each are Gould’s reflections on evolution theory and natural science. Every essay, as Gould states in his foreword, is meant to illustrate a big idea by talking about a small detail. Gould does this with wit and contagious enthusiasm.

Check out this collection, available at the library here. You may also be interested in one of the many other collections of essays by Stephen Jay Gould that the library owns. And if you enjoy his work, try titles by Oliver Sacks and Daniel Dennett.

 

 

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.

Are we natural-born warmongers?

Loren RossonIn the last post we saw that human beings are a species of natural born liars. Are we also homicidal warmongers?

Not exactly, says David Livingstone Smith. The director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies suggests that we are neither natural born killers nor peace-lovers, but simultaneously both, and these opposing inclinations war within us to produce distressing results.

David_Livingstone_Smith_The_Most_Dangerous_Animal_sm

“The Most Dangerous Animal” by David Livingstone Smith is available from the library in hardcover.

You could describe his book The Most Dangerous Animal as an account of war from a neurobiological, psychological, and evolutionary perspective, and it’s a rather disturbing one.

Homicidal fantasies
On the one hand, Smith points out that we have strong homicidal impulses. Studies show that 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women admit to daydreaming about killing people they dislike. Film and literature testify to our collective homicidal fantasies where violence is pervasive, in even the best classics like The Iliad and the Bible.

At the same time, less than .005 percent of American people who daydream about murder go on to commit it. (Even in a place like Jamaica, which has the highest murder rate in the world, less than .06 percent of people are killers.)

So despite our homicidal impulses, we also have a strong aversion to killing, and it’s not just fear of criminal punishment. If it were, then soldiers would become instant homicidal maniacs when thrown into war. But that doesn’t happen: soldiers are routinely traumatized and guilt-ridden from taking lives. They vomit from stress, they have tremors and convulsions, and they are often emotionally scarred.

Smith says this is because we have evolved into conceptual beings, and we know that underneath our racial and cultural differences we’re all biologically the same. Our homicidal “chimpanzee” urges are opposed by an equally profound aversion to killing members of our own species.

But once soldiers cope with that initial aversion, many find that they love and thrive on killing. Why?

Dehumanizing the enemy
Smith suggests that one of the most effective ways we overcome our initial aversion to killing is by relying on self-deception: by dehumanizing and demonizing our enemies. Thinking of them as a virus or subhuman animals enables us to take their lives as casually as we would swat insects and to unleash our natural aggressions with a clean conscience.

In this sense, dehumanizing the enemy becomes more than just political rhetoric. It’s the way we subconsciously tell ourselves that genocide is okay, and indeed something that can be enjoyed.

Winston Churchill said he loved war: “I know it’s smashing and shattering lives of thousands every moment, and yet I enjoy every second of it.” Many soldiers grow to like killing so much that they feel intoxicated by the sight of bloodshed and sound of hideous screaming.

I consider myself a strong pacifist, but what would happen if I were thrown into the nightmare of prolonged combat? How much would it take to unleash my killer instincts? Would sadistic aggressions flood to the surface and make a mockery of my pacifist values? How would that affect me long-term?

Smith allows us some cautious optimism, concluding that while it’s futile to try to stop us from enjoying war, perhaps we can at least learn to hate it more than we enjoy it. Coming to terms with our self-deception, and becoming intolerant of the way we dehumanize our enemies, would at least be a promising step in this direction.

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.

Are we natural-born liars?

Loren Rosson[Editor's note: Our Adult Summer Reading Program, Literary Elements, has a science theme this year, so our Next Great Read reviewers will recommend several science books over the next three months. Here's the first of them.]

“Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature, essential to our humanity but disowned by its perpetrators at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It is not, as popular opinion would have it, reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Human society is a network of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty.” (Why We Lie, p. 2).

Philosophers have been arguing for centuries about the morality of lying. For some, lying is always wrong (Augustine, Wesley, Kant); for others it depends (Montaigne, Voltaire, Bacon); for others, it is very often a good thing.

Why We Lie

“Why We Lie” by David Livingstone Smith is available from the library in hardcover.

A scientific view of lying
The scientific perspective has been falling in line with the last group. In Why We Lie, David Livingstone Smith, director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies, explains that human beings are a race of habitual liars and deceivers, and especially self-deceivers. We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species.

This has been confirmed by fascinating studies. Psychologist Robert Feldman found that 60% of Americans tell on average two to three lies for every ten minutes of conversation.

The frequency applies to men and women equally, though the sexes tend to lie about different things: men to make themselves look better, women to make others feel good. He’s including all kinds of lies: socially acceptable lies (“I’m doing well today, thank you”), unacceptable lies, outrageous bald-faced lies (I love the example of the student who said he was a rock star and was later astonished that he told such a casual lie without even thinking about it), lies of omission (silent lies), and other forms of deception.

Self-deception helps us lie efficiently
According to Smith, self-deception soothes the stresses of life and in the process helps us lie efficiently to others. Once again the research is fascinating, and reveals the opposite of what we might expect: Depressed people deceive themselves far less than those who are mentally healthy. If the mentally ill are in closer touch with reality, then perhaps self-knowledge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

We claim to value truth as a moral virtue, and instill it in our children, but we are also at least dimly aware that too much honesty is antisocial and sometimes offensive.

But while Smith insists that we are natural-born liars, he points out that we have to be economical with lies, otherwise deception would become self-defeating (as it did for the boy who cried wolf).

Does this mean we should go ahead and “lie boldly”? Smith concludes:

“If we cannot transcend the demon, because we are the demon, we can at least try acknowledging its existence . . . I don’t for a minute believe that we can be taught not to deceive ourselves and others, and even if we could (by whom?), it would probably result in widespread unhappiness. . . But surely we can get rid of some of our surplus deceptions. Tolerating a measure of deception is one thing, but actively promoting it quite another. At a minimum, perhaps we can help each other acknowledge that we are all natural-born liars.” (p. 197)

In my next post, we’ll see what Smith has to say about human beings as “natural-born warmongers,” again from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

Further reading on lying and deception:

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.

A tale of a head witch and necromancer

Midnight Witch

“The Midnight Witch” by Paula Brackston is available from the library in hardcover.

Inga Dellea-MessnerHow far will one woman with a dangerous power go to protect those she loves?

The Midnight Witch by Paula Brackston is a tale of strength, power, anguish, and amour, centered around Lilith Montgomery, newly dubbed head witch of the Lazarus Coven.

This daughter, sister, betrothed, and head necromancer has the training and intellect to handle anything that life–or, for that matter, the afterlife–might throw at her.

Never in her wildest dreams, however, could she have imagined the terrors she’s up against now.

Nor is she prepared for the young, talented Mr. Bram, artiste extraordinaire, to enter her world.

When an ancient rival threatens, will Lilith let herself be distracted from her duties as head witch? From her promise to her family and her fiancé? What will she sacrifice?

Or whom?

This story is full of suspense, danger, chaos, and romance, woven together in a complex and intricate balance between intense action and a love story that fully consumes its victims. The author carries you from dark caves to fancy balls and from war zones to palaces in her account of courage and caring.

The setting is the transition between the Victorian era and World War I, with of course a generous helping of magic . . . and some very earthly opium problems.

Brackston’s writing style is meant to transport the reader to another realm, and in this she is successful. But heads up! The diction, while beautiful and descriptive, is lofty and old-fashioned at points. But her action and horror scenes create the disconcerting feeling that your heart and gut are being mashed through a citrus squeezer and then chilled. It’s both eerie and invigorating.

In her dire moments, how far will Lilith go to protect the ones she loves? All I’ll say is she must make sacrifices in all aspects of her duties and desires.

If you want to be swept away from the monotony of daily life, Brackston is a perfect writer for you. If you like succinct, conversational writing you may enjoy the plot twists but find the writing cumbersome. But if you enjoy action and romance, with little bits of history thrown in, this book will surely cast a spell on you. I hope you check it out!

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 man named Dolly

Jen HindererThe Good Thief by Hannah Tinti is an adventure story (with a hint of mystery) featuring lucky orphan Ren as he is finally claimed by his long-lost father Benjamin Nab and leaves for a new life roaming about colonial New England safe and secure in a family at last.

The Good Thief is available from the library in hardcover and audiobook

“The Good Thief” by Hannah Tinti is available from the library in hardcover and audiobook.

Great story, right?!

Except on their first night together Benjamin steals a horse and wagon and introduces Ren to life as a grave robber and pretty soon boy and reader both doubt Benjamin’s claim to paternity.

The surprises keep coming for Ren in his new life as he meets hilarious characters like Mrs. Sands (the landlady who can’t speak below a shout), the dwarf who lives in her chimney, and Dolly–whose origins I’ll leave as a surprise except to say Dolly is a giant of a man.

Tinti has written a thoroughly entertaining story with rich and wonderful characters that I hated to bid farewell.

If you’re looking for a more literary look at colonial New England life try The Last Days of Dogtown by Anita Diamant. This novel features an equally engaging cast of odd characters facing hardship and struggle in a village just outside of present-day Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the early 1800s.

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.

For Bill Bryson, it’s all about the journey

Rebecca NugentRobert Redford’s long-awaited movie version of the bestseller A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, first announced in 2005, is now in production.

A Walk in the Woods

“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson is available at the library in hardcover and downloadable audiobook.

Redford produced the film and stars as Bryson, with Nick Nolte playing Stephen Krantz, Bryson’s coarse and hilarious companion.

This is Bryson’s most widely read book. It’s the story of how he hiked the Appalachian Trail to rediscover his connection with the US after 20 years as an expatriate. In it, the reader learns a great deal about the history and ecology of the trail. The most memorable part, however, is the personal story of Bryson and his companion. The challenges, rewards, and humor in the journey make this a classic.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything Bryson seeks to answer life’s questions–all of life’s questions, in fact. He starts from the beginning, the Big Bang, and takes the reader through the story of the universe, the solar system, planet Earth and, well, everything.

In his pursuit of answers, we travel together on an adventure through all scientific disciplines and learn about the many important characters and discoveries that led us to the knowledge we have today.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

“A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson is available from the library in hardcover and audiobook on CD.

The book explores physics, geology, chemistry, and more. The strength of the work, though, is that it is written by a nonscientist for nonscientists. You’ll find A Short History of Nearly Everything illuminating, accessible, and exciting, even if you weren’t paying that much attention in your high school science class.

If you enjoy lucid and informative nonfiction written with humor and intelligence, check out any of Bryson’s books. He covers subjects like history, culture, ecology, travel, literature and more in his large body of work that includes In a Sunburned Country, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Notes From a Small Island, One Summer: America, 1927, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and many others.

 

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.

Genesis 6-9: A disturbing corner of the Bible

Loren RossonDarren Aronofsky’s film Noah is currently in theaters and his graphic novel provides a taste of it.

It’s refreshing to see this famous story of the Bible get a creative work-over. Films about Jesus are cranked out every other year, but what about the more challenging (and disturbing) corners of the Bible? Like Job. Or the war stories of Saul and David. Revelation too. And of course, the flood in Genesis.

Noah

“Noah” by Darren Aronofsky is available at the library as a graphic novel.

Noah pulls no punches over God’s act of genocide. Aronofsky takes license filling in the blanks of Genesis 6-9, but remains true to the heart of the story: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust and commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out–because people, in God’s eyes, deserve nothing less.

Vengeance and vegetarianism
Some critics have complained that the theme of divine vengeance has been aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism, but there actually is a significant amount of “environmentalism” that can be derived from the Bible. As for vegetarianism, the account of Genesis implies that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3) anyway. (See Chris Heard’s review on these points.) I don’t think Aronofsky’s Noah can be called pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can certainly resonate with some viewers on that level.

The crux of the film and graphic novel comes in Noah’s homicidal fit on board the Ark, where he intends to butcher his newborn granddaughters. After long moments of agony he finally stops himself, but it’s a struggle against his dark side that he barely wins.

Noah takes the vengeful character of God seriously, with a fleshed out portrait of a “righteous” hero who ends up mirroring the image of the divine. It is no less troubling for that, but I think it handles the subject with an appropriate balance. Both the film and graphic novel entertain above all, but they also force hard and fascinating questions about divine justice.

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.