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.

A man named Money

“Home” by Toni Morrison is available from the library in hardcover, large print, audio, and e-book.

Jen HindererIn her slim but powerful novel, Home, Toni Morrison explores not only racism but the trauma suffered by those who served in the Korean War, the suffocating nature of small town life in 1950s Georgia, and the lives of black women in the rural south in the middle of the 20th century.

The main character, Frank Money, is a soldier just returned from a tour in Korea, carrying with him the memory of the friends who will never come home.

The fact that he survived when his friends did not fuels his desire to rescue his sister Cee from her suffering at the hands of the doctor she works for, Dr. Beauregarde Scott.

An unwitting research subject
Dr. Scott  is a scientist, interested more in researching eugenics than treating patients, and Cee is his current research subject. Cee went to work for the doctor believing she would be assisting him in his practice but ended up drugged most of the time, an unknowing participant in his research. When Frank gets her letter begging him to rescue her, he leaves his latest girlfriend behind and heads to Georgia.

In between chapters about Frank’s journey to find Cee, Morrison tells the story of their growing up and eventual (inevitable) parting as teenagers. Even more poignant are chapters in which Frank reflects on his time in war, the things he saw and did alongside his comrades.

Throughout the book I was caught by Morrison’s elegant language and phrasing, how she could summarize the reality of racism in just one short sentence spoken by a character:

“Custom is just as real as law, and can be just as dangerous.”

And later expressing the penetrating grief of being a survivor, the impossibility of being alive when your best friends are not:

“He was far too alive to stand before Mike’s folks . . . his easy breath and unscathed self would be an insult . . . “

Normally I wouldn’t even pick up a book as short as Home but this time I am glad I did: Morrison’s talent for language and expression allows her to tell a powerful story in only 145 pages.

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.

Reaping the whirlwind

Loren RossonI’m still winding down from Whirlwind. With everything going on in the Middle East, it hits close to home.

It’s about the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and, like all of James Clavell’s epics, based on true events in a “clash of cultures.”

"Whirlwind" by James Clavell is available from the library in hardcover.

“Whirlwind” by James Clavell is available from the library in hardcover.

Everyone knows Shogun, and Whirlwind has the similar theme of Western people struggling to stay alive in a culture they can barely make sense of. Instead of a sea pilot visiting Japan, it’s now helicopter pilots working for Iran Oil, and the story is their escape from a nation suddenly taken over by strict Islam.

Not your usual Clavell
What strikes me rereading the book today (it was published in the 1980s) is the different thrust it carries from Clavell’s other novels. He was known for building bridges between East and West, but he seems to have been more intent on burning bridges when it came to the Middle East.

Shogun and Tai-Pan, for instance, are about cross-cultural fusion: the Western protagonists remain in Japan or Hong Kong, meshing their Western outlook with revelations in the East. They take the good and discard the bad from both, and it’s about a 50/50 wash. If the West emerges superior for its democracy and free trade, the East scores for progressive medicine, cleanliness, liberal sexuality, healthy diet, and wiser philosophy.

Whirlwind advances a much different impression, that there can be no optimistic marriage with Islamic states like Iran. The caliphate that was declared in Iraq and Syria two months ago (ISIS) certainly copies that impression.

Capturing an alien mentality
Critics have noted how the novel sticks out. Gina MacDonald, for instance, writes that in Whirlwind Clavell does his typically excellent job in “capturing an alien mentality, but he does not help readers appreciate it” (James Clavell: A Critical Companion, p 145).

But that’s not a fault. There’s just not much to appreciate in a culture possessed by religious supremacists, kangaroo courts that execute the innocent, and patriarchs who silence women and force them to wear the chador.

Whirlwind is less humbling and more cathartic. It makes a Western reader feel good about being Western–something rare in Clavell. It’s not Islamophobic by any means, but its realism doesn’t leave much hope for regions under Sharia law.

And while it’s fiction, it’s based on the real evacuation of Bristow Helicopters. I was sweating as those pilots fled across the Persian Gulf. Imagining the face of James Foley on every one.

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.

Must We All Be Wonder Women?

Inga Dellea-Messner In the 1900’s, all women wanted was open doors. We fought hard for our right to vote, our place in the working world, control over our reproductive abilities. And we won!

Wonder Women

“Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Question for Perfection” by Debora L. Spar is available at the library in hardcover.

However, in her book Wonder Women : Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Debora Spar explains some of the unforeseen outcomes of this noble fight.

We daughters of the women who fought grew up to a frequent, fervent chorus. “You can do it!” mothers said to the extra credit assignments. “You can do it!” they said to the soccer, the cross country, academic decathlons, and AP classes. And even, when we reach puberty, “You can do it!” they say of sex. “But you better not mess up!”

Anything, not everything
And so now, we’ve been promised we can have it all. We can pursue fulfilling careers; tend to babies and husbands; keep our bodies fit, minds informed, and houses sparkling clean. Feminism opened up all these doors for us.

What we failed to understand, though, is that although we can do anything, anything is not everything, all at once.

This is the topic of Spar’s book. From schools, to the home and (especially) in the working world, women are trying to manage “having it all” not by picking and choosing things to focus on but instead trying to juggle a million ambitions.

And we are simply burning out. And the emotional repercussions are dire. From body issues and eating disorders in our teenage years to obsessive micromanagement of everything else we can control (including our own children), girls are just going crazy!

So why haven’t we figured out that we’ll just have to ask men for help? If I pick all the darned socks off the floor and sweep, can’t he maybe put them through the wash and chop some veggies for dinner when I get home?

The truth is, as a “modern woman” myself, I believe that we are learning this. While Spar’s assessment of her own era is accurate, what I see when I get home from a long day at work is a clean apartment. And it’s not me who cleaned it. It’s my boyfriend. And a coworker and my sister say the same.

Has he accidentally flooded the kitchen floor twice, the most recent time putting dish soap in the dishwasher? Yes. But he’s trying.

My point is, just maybe, men can learn.

What’s it like for you?
So here’s my call to action: Read this book, then tell me what you think.

Ladies: Do you feel like you’re juggling too much? Does your husband take the kids to their appointments or cook when you work late? Do you think that the times are changing?

And men: Do you see yourself, or at least your sons, starting to adapt more to a world of stressed-out gals?

I hope you’ll respond. After all, actions speak louder than words, but words just might inspire 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).

Dodging bullets for their daily bread

Carol Luers EymanIn the US, most of us have it easy. We don’t risk our lives obtaining food and water.

The Cellist of Sarajevo

“The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Steven Galloway is available from the library in hardcover and paperback.

Not so in Sarajevo in the early 1990s. The once magnificent city, site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, was besieged by the Bosnian Serbs, bombarded by over 300 shells a day for nearly four years. Ten thousand people were killed and 87 percent of the city’s buildings were bombed.

Canadian author Steven Galloway personalizes this tragedy in The Cellist of Sarajevo, a slim novel that delves into the war-torn minds of four of its victims.

Kenan, the father of young children, considers himself a coward. Yet every few days he walks several miles to fill six containers of water for his family, dodging shells and sniper fire. He even finds it in himself to fill two extra containers for an elderly, ungrateful neighbor downstairs.

Dragan no longer receives a paycheck from his job at a large bakery but with the promise of some bread for himself and his relatives, continues to brave city streets on his walk to work.

A cellist vows to sit in a city square, risking sniper fire, and play a poignant adagio every day for 22 days. He wants to honor the 22 people who were killed in a bombing at the same spot, waiting in line for a bit of bread.

Arrow, who before the war excelled on her college’s target-shooting team, is ordered by the army to help defend the city from the snipers in the hills–and to protect the cellist as he plays.

The plot of The Cellist of Sarajevo is easy to follow, but the ethical questions are profound. You owe it to millions of innocent people, in Gaza, in Iraq, in Syria, who are living the lives of Galloway’s characters, to spend a few hours pondering them. After all, you don’t have to risk anything to get your hands on this book.

 

 

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.

Minnesota twins, separated at birth

Jen HindererI don’t think I’ve ever read a Civil War-era novel set in Minnesota before; generally those books take place in the South and feature bloody battles and the suffering of slaves and young soldiers.

Instead, Nicole Heglet has set her novel, Stillwater, in a Minnesota town that serves as a stop on the Underground Railroad but is still a pioneer town, populated by trappers and loggers and outlaws as well as abolitionists helping escaped slaves make it to freedom.

"Stillwater" by Nicole Helget is available at the library in hardcover.

“Stillwater” by Nicole Helget is available at the library in hardcover.

Angel and Clement grow up here not knowing that they are really twins, but with the certain knowledge that they share a special connection, mystical but very real.

The story of their birth and their childhood is wound through the larger story of Stillwater itself and the struggles of the people who live there. Chapters about the nuns helping runaway slaves alternate with haunting chapters like “Angel’s Doll,”  where the reader meets her truly evil mother and Angel finds a beautiful doll in a box underground.

Some of my favorite chapters feature Mother St. John and Big Waters at the orphanage where Clement is growing up. Heglet uses these characters to illustrate the clash between the missionaries and the Native Americans in the region, as the nuns try to “save” orphans by getting them adopted by white families.

If you like Stillwater
Here Heglet’s novel reminds me of many I’ve read by one of my favorite authors, Louise Erdrich, who writes about the Ojibwe in North Dakota.  Once you’ve finished Stillwater and want to try a book by Erdrich I recommend starting with one of her earlier works like The Beet Queen or Tracks.

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.

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.