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Benjamin Kalish
Benjamin Kalish is a librarian and amateur musician in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Benjamin Kalish is a librarian and amateur musician in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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I've posted a new staff pick: A. J. Raffles is now mostly forgotten, but he has been the hero of numerous films and plays on stage and the radio, and even had his own television series. Raffles was a quintessentially British "gentleman thief", and a kind of anti-Sherlock Holmes. I stumbled across the collection of Raffles stories by accident and impressed by the stylish photos of Ronald Colman playing the titular role in the 1930 films Raffles, I decided to give it a try. I quite enjoyed it!

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Has it been six months since I last wrote about the books I'm reading? I think so. What a lazy librarian I've been! Here are some of the better books I've read since I wrote about Kimberly Elkins' great "What is Visible" in July.

- Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The hype is justified. Hillenbrand's writing is remarkable, with attention given to just the right details to bring the people and setting to life. You don't have to be interested in horses or racing to enjoy this.

- Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley. A beautiful and haunting graphic novel in all respects. I haven't been reading many comics lately, but I'm glad I took this one of the shelf.

- The Round House by Louise Erdrich. This novel is about a young boy growing up on a North Dakota Indian reservation whose mother is raped and suffers from post traumatic syndrome. The story is concerned with ideas of tradition, justice, injustice, friendship, right and wrong, and much more beside. It was a difficult book to read, but very good all the same.

- Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. More stories of time-travelling Oxford historians from Connie Willis. These two novels tell the complicated and intertwined stories of the historians who visited England during World War II and the people they met. Although they are fun reads and have much in common with the hilarious To Say Nothing of the Dog, these books are darker and more serious, as suits the subject matter. A wonderful combination of well-researched historical fiction and science fiction.

- Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences by Ursula Le Guin. Short stories and poems from one of my favorite authors, the pieces in this volume are united by the unusual perspectives from which the stories are told. (Just one example: the rise of the automobile from the perspective of an oak tree!)

- Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. A combined history of the Incas, the Spanish conquest, Hiram Bingham's Peruvian explorations, and Mark Adam's own travels in Peru. I can't imagine reading this and not wanting to visit Peru (or at least go on a good long hike) afterwards.

I have fallen out of the habit of writing about the books I read, but Kimberly Elkins' What Is Visible is one of the best books I have read in a long while. I wept through it's final chapters, and yet, upon finishing it I find myself already sorry that I had reached the end so soon. A work of historical fiction, What Is Visible tells the story of a number of celebrated figures at the Perkins School for the Blind in the mid-nineteenth century, including Samuel Gridley Howe and Julia Ward Howe, but most of all, the remarkable Laura Bridgman, who, at the age of two, lost her senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell. Although she relied almost completely on her sense of touch to perceive the world, Laura would learn English, and could read, so long as the print was raised so that she could feel the shape of the letters, could write, and conversed with others using a manual alphabet in which the two conversationalists would write or sign letters into each other's hands.

A world without sight, sound, smell or taste is difficult for most of us to imagine, but, as this book shows, none of these senses are essential, and it serves us well to spend some time imagining a life without them. Each chapter of the novel is written from the perspective of a different character. Most are written from Laura's perspective, but many are written from the perspective of Julia Ward Howe, the suffragist and poet, or from that of Laura's teachers, including her most famous teacher, the abolitionist, educator, and phrenology devotee, Samuel Gridley Howe (who was also Julia's husband). Elkins writes a compelling and moving portrait of each of these characters, and the story they tell together is both Laura's story and a fascinating glimpse at a small portion of 19th century America life. The stories told here are full of hardship and melancholy, but also of hope and perseverance and occasionally even joy. They are the stories of remarkable people with remarkable ideas, and of how they did, and did not get along.

I loved this story and the way it was told, and I can say with confidence that this is a book I will want to reread. I don't feel that way often.

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I just finished reading Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson, which tells the story of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton. I loved the way the setting was both so familiar and so foreign! What a different time that was!

It has been many months since I last wrote here about the books I am reading. I have been reading though, and enjoying it thoroughly. Some titles include:

* Ukridge by P. G. Wodehouse (the stories were each pretty good individually, but I probably shouldn't have read them all at once, like a novel)
* Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (strange and captivating, but it dragged towards the end)
* Outcasts United by Warren St. John (non-fiction about immigrants to the United States; I learned a lot)
* Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks (a very enjoyable homage to P.G. Wodehouse)
* I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron (completely trivial and charming)
* Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (funny and informative)
* The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (a really excellent overview of linguistics which also makes a convincing case for Pinker's thesis)
* Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels (an enjoyable read that has changed the way I look at the landscape around me)
* Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner (lots of fun!)
* Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie (very engaging)
* Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (fun in typical Discworld fashion)
* The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (a short novel in which Gaiman does an excellent job of being himself; if you've never read Gaiman before this may be the perfect introduction)

I just finished reading Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. It was a great read. My favorite part: when Catherine donned a uniform and the led the army to arrest her husband and seize his throne! (Also, the excerpts from her love letters were fantastic—if you feel the need skim this admittedly long book, make sure you don't miss them.)

I recently finished reading Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which must be one of the most depressing books I've read. The Magicians is the story of people who choose to be miserable and drunk, despite, or perhaps because of, the fantastical magical powers they possess. The novel is not without appeal—it is darkly humorous and the world building is surprisingly good for its genre—but it doesn't make up for such a painfully bitter outlook on life. In addition to this grim outlook, the graphic sex and violence, and gratuitous drug and alcohol consumption will likely alienate many. I know there are folks who love this book, but it's not for me.
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