Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Horrible Histories for Adults

I must confess I am utterly addicted to the TV series Game of Thrones, even though I didn’t read George R. R. Martin’s books.  Fantasy was never my favorite genre, although I did enjoy Lord of the Rings.  But the hordes of Tolkien imitators with tales of dragons and quests was not for me.  Without reading him I placed Martin in that category.  How wrong could I be?  Game of Thrones has dragons and the quest for a throne of course, but there the similarity ends. In traditional fantasy good triumphs over evil in the end.  But in Game of Thrones the good are often beheaded, the most evil characters triumph, and there is a chaotic sprawl to events.  In fact Game of Thrones is more like - well, actual history.  So I wasn’t surprised to learn that George R. R. Martin wasn’t inspired by fantasy novels, but by The Accursed Kings, a French historical fiction series by Maurice Druon. In seven volumes Druon tells the blood-curdling tale of the Capet kings of France during the Hundred Years War.  To borrow a phrase from a children’s series, it’s what you might call the Horrible Histories for adults genre.  Battles, betrayals, lust, stranglings, poisonings, and curses. The Capets and Plantagenets rival the Starks and Lannisters for misdeeds on a grand scale.  The first volume in the series is called The Iron King, obviously an inspiration for the Iron Throne. (The Accursed Kings series is not owned by MCPL but is available through Interlibrary Loan).

So my enjoyment of Game of Thrones is clearly linked to my love of history and I would advise anyone looking for a list of “if you liked George R. R. Martin” books to consider turning to history instead of fantasy.  Here are a few of my recent reads in Horrible History:

  • The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones. A marvelously readable historical epic intended to bring the Plantagenets out from the shadow of the Tudors. I had not realized till reading this how rare it was for the English throne to pass smoothly from one generation to the next.  In Plantagenet times it was more likely to be contested by rival claimants and determined by battle, intrigue, even murder.  

  • The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J. Meyer. This new account of one of the most notorious families in history reveals the real people behind the legend.  Were they as bad as we have been led to believe?  The Borgias are also the subject of a recent TV series starring Jeremy Irons and the book Blood and Beauty by popular historical novelist Sarah Dunant.

  • The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story by Bob Brier. Brier, a paleopathologist, performs high-tech autopsies on ancient corpses. Studying X-rays of King Tut’s mummy he determines that the boy king died of a blow to the head. Then he follows a trail of evidence in wall paintings and hieroglyphics to reveal intrigue in the Egyptian court and the probable identity of the murderer.

  • How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore. History’s horrors don’t always take place on a grand stage, but in the intimate lives of seemingly ordinary people. The villain of this story is Thomas Day, an 18th century English gentleman who decided to create the perfect wife, docile and subservient to his every whim, by adopting two orphan girls from the Foundling Hospital and training them for the role. Whichever grew up to best fulfill his requirements would win the dubious prize of his hand in marriage. This amazing story, truly history proving stranger than fiction, reveals the dark side of Enlightenment ideas taken to extremes.

For more historical fiction check out this list of 50 Essential Historical Novels.  Or if you really insist on fantasy dragons and magical swords Good Reads has an extensive collection of fantasy book lists.  Meanwhile I’ll be trying to keep all the characters and plot twists on Game of Thrones straight with this handy Viewer’s Guide.

Rita T.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Curiosities of Medicine

Intestines from victims of Philadelphia's 1849 cholera outbreak. (The Mütter Museum)
Intestines from victims of Philadelphia's 1849 cholera outbreak. (The Mütter Museum)

I have been very impressed in recent years by the expanding number of topics approached in graphic novels.  No longer just about superheroes, they tackle politics, economics, race relations, and history among many other topics, and there is an ever growing selection of  biographies and memoirs in this form. A while back, a Facebook friend turned me on to an interesting website called Graphic Medicine.

Graphic Medicine is a site started in 2007 by Ian Williams, a physician and artist from North Wales, that "explores the interaction between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare". There you'll find a growing collection of comic reviews, articles, pod-casts, links, and coverage of their international Comics and Medicine Conferences. They encourage participation by academics, health carers, authors, artists, fans, and anyone involved with comics and medicine.  I was especially interested in the reviews they post, and wondered how many of the books are in our libraries. Quite a few, as it turns out.

It's not a surprise that one of the most frequent illnesses dealt with in graphic novels is cancer.

Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person : A Memoir in Comics by Miriam Engelberg.

A cartoonist examines her experience with breast cancer in an irreverent and humorous graphic memoir.

Cover of Mom's CancerMom's Cancer by Brian Fies

An honest, unflinching, and sometimes humorous look at the practical and emotional effect that serious illness can have on patients and their families. 

Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto.

An an autobiographical work that documents the investigations and treatment this city girl went though when diagnosed with breast cancer. Read more about it on GM.

Stiches: A Memoir by David Small. 

"How would you feel if you inadvertently caused your son’s cancer, then ignored the lump for a couple of years, resulting in an operation that left him mute? It isn’t really apparent what David Small’s father felt, because his family are not big on communication." -- GM
A grueling yet fascinating memoir.

Epileptic by David B.

"A masterpiece in which the margins of reality, dreams and imagination are blurred," says GM.
Cover of Tangles

Tangles : a Story about Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me  by Sarah Leavitt.

Another memoir, currently on order.

The Alcoholic by Jonathan Ames.

Jonathan A. is a boozed-up, coked-out, sexually confused, hopelessly romantic and, of course, entirely fictional novelist who bears only a coincidental resemblance to real-life writer Jonathan Ames
Cover of Swallow Me Whole

Swallow Me Whole / Nate Powell.

As the story unfolds, two step siblings hold together amidst schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, family breakdown, animal telepathy, misguided love, and the tiniest hope that everything will someday make sense.

The Nao of Brown  by Glyn Dillon.

Nao Brown suffers from OCD, but not the hand-washing, overly tidy type that people often refer to jokingly. Nao suffers from violent, morbid obsessions, while her compulsions take the form of unseen mental rituals.

Are You My Mother by Alison Bechdel.

Cover of Are You My Mother?"This volume continues the story of Fun Home, which documents Bechdel’s struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder and her father’s struggle as a closeted gay man who ultimately commits suicide. Although the two memoirs overlap, Are You My Mother? also works well as a stand-alone story. In it, Bechdel portrays herself writing Fun Home, clashing with her mother repeatedly as she tries to unpack her family’s history and her own struggle for mental health." -- GM.

The Ride Together : A Brother and Sister`s Memoir of Autism in the Family by Paul Karasik, Judy Karasik.

With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child  by Tobe, Keiko.

A work of fiction set in Japan gives an interesting cultural perspective on raising a child with an ASD in a very competitive, status-preoccupied environment.
Cover of Tyranny

Tyranny by Lesley Fairfield.

The tyrant in question is anorexia in this young adult graphic novel.

Lucille  by Ludovic Debeurme

Another book that follows the life of a young anorexic woman and the difficult relationships she has with others, who have significant problems of their own. This one's in the adult collection.
Cover of The Hypo

The hypo : [the melancholic young Lincoln]  by Noah Van Sciver.

This debut graphic novel follows the twentysomething Abraham Lincoln as he battles a dark cloud of depression, unknowingly laying the foundation of character he would use as one of America's greatest presidents.

Blue Pills by Frederick Peeters.

"Swiss artist Frederick Peeters, chronicles his relationship with Cati, a wild, vivacious girl he meets at a New Years Party. They connect and become lovers. Before long Cati tells Fred that she and her three-year-old son are both HIV positive." -- GM.

Cover of The Truth About StaceyThe Truth About Stacy by Reina Telgemeier.
A middle school girl comes to terms with her diabetes in this graphic novel in the Babysitters Club series, shelved in the children's section.The same author/illustrator created Smile which depicts how she coped, sixth grade through tenth, with a variety of dental problems that affected her appearance and how she felt about herself.

(Since we are in the children's room, I'd like to put a word in for a series about Squish, an amoeba, by Jennifer Holm.)

Speculative fantasy based on a medical premise, also show up in graphic novels:

BodyWorld by Dash Shaw.
Cover Of BodyWorldIt's 2060, and a devastating civil war has left the country in shambles. Professor Paulie Panther-- botanist, writer, and hopeless romantic-- arrives in the experimental forest town of Boney Borough to research a strange plant growing behind the high school. Read an interview with the author.

Black Hole by Charles Burns.

1970s. A group of young teens finds themselves struggling with a mysterious and vicious virus that only infects teenagers, transforming them into self-segregating monsters.
Here are the gruesome details.

And then there are the career books:

Level Up by Gene Luen Yang.

This Young Adult book suggests  that you need not give up the joy of video games to pursue becoming a doctor.

Cover of The PhotographerThe Photographer by  Guibert, Emmanuel.

A look at the work of Doctors without Borders as seen through the eyes of a photojournalist who accompanied the group through war-torn Afghanistan.

Cover of From HellAnd, let's add a crazy doctor to that mix:

From Hell by Alan Moore.

Alan Moore's "autopsy" of the Jack the Ripper legend was an award-winning series in the 1990s and is gathered together in one volume in this edition.

Until you can get in to your local library, why don't you try some web comics:

Asylum Squad

Canadian artist Sarafin creates fiction based on her experiences with inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.

Better, Drawn

A place for people to share stories about long-term mental and physical illnesses, told in the form of short comics.

Comic Nurse

She may have been the first healthcare professional to start drawing comics about her experiences.


The creator is a physician, artist and cartoonist in the U.K.

Hyperbole and A Half

An epic tale of childhood sugar rage.


Annette K's avatarAnnette K.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ode (and Owed) To Public Libraries

The public library is the crowning glory of American democracy.  The way to build and support communities includes supporting public libraries.

If you are counting in money, libraries can return more than $4 to the community for every $1 invested in the public library.  And libraries raise the value of homes that are located near a public library.

There are many ways besides money to count the value of libraries to individuals and communities. In the words of Bill Moyers:
When a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.

Maria Popova, in her fascinating blog Brain Pickings writes about The Public Library in a post discussing the book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (public library) by photographer Robert Dawson.  Here are photos of public libraries around the country from Dawson's book.

The Globe Chandelier near Children's Library, Central Library, Los Angeles, California, 2008
The chandelier is a model of the solar system. Signs of the zodiac ring the globe, along with forty-eight lights around the rim, which represent the forty-eight United States in 1926, when the building opened. It was designed by Goodhue Associates and modeled by Lee Lawrie. The mural beneath the chandelier by John Fisher is titled 'Sesquicentennial.'

George Washington Carver Branch Library, Austin, Texas, 2011
This mural by John Fisher covers a wall of the branch library. It depicts the horrors of the slave trade and celebrates African American culture. Black citizens in East Austin had strongly advocated for a library in their community, and this was the first branch library to serve them.

Reading room, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library, 2008
More than twelve hundred languages and dialects, ancient and modern, are represented in the collections, emblematic of the rich diversity of the city that built it.

Rudy's Library, Monowi, Nebraska, 2012
The entire population of this town consists of one woman, Elsie Eller. It is the only incorporated municipality in the United States with such a demographic. She acts as mayor and runs the only business in town, a local roadhouse. Over the years she watched all the other town residents move or pass away. When her husband, Rudy Eller, died in 2004, she became the town's last resident. Because Rudy had collected so many books, she decided to open Rudy's lLIbrary in a small shed next to her home. This memorial to Rudy is free and open to all. Patrons can check out books by signing a notebook. A wooden sign in the corner simply states 'Rudy's Dream.'

Destroyed Mark Twain Branch Library, Detroit, Michigan, 2011

Entrance to the Central Library, Brooklyn, New York, 2009

Popova tells us about Marguerite Hart, a librarian in Troy Michigan.  "To get the children in the community excited about books and reading, Marguerite Hart reached out to some of the era’s most celebrated minds — writers, actors, senators — and asked them to write letters to the children of Troy, extolling the value of libraries and the joy of books."  
She got back 91 letters.  And Popova quotes Ann Patchett:
Know this — if you love your library, use your library. Support libraries in your words and deeds. If you are fortunate enough to be able to buy your books, and you have your own computer with which to conduct research, and you’re not in search of a story hour for your children, then don’t forget about the members of your community who are like you but perhaps lack your resources — the ones who love to read, who long to learn, who need a place to go and sit and think. Make sure that in your good fortune you remember to support their quest for a better life. That’s what a library promises us, after all: a better life. And that’s what libraries have delivered.
Dr. Seuss wrote the children of Troy Michigan:

In addition to the buildings, libraries are where you find librarians.  Librarians can help dig out the secrets and special features stored in libraries.  Knowing how to use the internet is often not the same as knowing how to find what you are looking for.  Be sure to ask the librarians questions when you visit a library.  They can help you find things you had no idea were there.   As one friend said:  "I've never had a boring conversation with a librarian."

For fun with librarians see these super hero librarians from the realms of fiction:

To see some real live librarian tattoos see 

Nell M.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


I was putting cream in my tea, half-and-half from a neat little plastic cup that keeps it fresh for months, maybe years, without refrigeration, when I was struck by the thought: “The eighth wonder of the modern world!” (And I thought about immunizations, and photo-voltaic cells and cellular telephony, more modern wonders).

And Wonder made me wonder – as it does - and my thoughts tumbled around.

The historian Herodotus (484 – ca. 425 BCE), and the scholar Callimachus of Cyrene (ca. 305 – 240 BCE) at the Museum of Alexandria, made early lists of seven wonders. Their writings have not survived, except as references.
The Great Pyramid at Giza

The classic seven wonders were:
  • Great Pyramid of Giza
  • Hanging Gardens of Babylon
  • Statue of Zeus at Olympia
  • Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
  • Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
  • Colossus of Rhodes
  • Lighthouse of Alexandria  
The only ancient world wonder that still exists is the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Have a look at our World Book Online for more information on these and other fascinating wonders.

Wonderful things! The exclamation of Howard Carter as he peered through a small hole into the burial chamber of the pharaoh Tutankhamen. “Can you see anything? He was asked by his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon. “Yes, wonderful things” he replied.

Full of fantastic creatures, teeming with life before Man was conceived.

Natural Wonder on TED:  Living things over 2000 years old! Rachel Sussman: The World's Oldest Living Things.

A photographer travels the globe creating portraits of living creatures more than 2000 years old. One of them has since died.

TED itself is a wonder. I found it while surfing on my ROKU but all of the videos are available for free, on the web. 

So my last thing to wonder about is...what makes YOU wonder?

Jan D.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Birthday of the Bard

Birthday Bard
April 23, 2014 will mark the 450  birthday of William Shakespeare, the playwright and poet who had an immense influence on Western literature and culture.  Shakepeare’s plays have been translated into more than 100 languages.  Performances of his work take place in theatres, high school gyms and outdoor spaces and countless other venues all over the world.

 His plays have also formed the basis of many Hollywood offerings, from West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) to Forbidden Planet (The Tempest) and Akira Kursosawa’s epic Ran (King Lear).


When I was an eleven year old nerd, I asked my Anglophile grandmother for a copy of the “Collected Plays of William Shakespeare” for Christmas.  Delighted, she gifted me with a massive volume containing all of Mr. Shakespeare's works in tiny print on tissue thin leaves.
  Over the next few years, I read every single play in that volume (yes, even “Pericles”), and enjoyed all of them.  I have been lucky enough to see quite a few productions of the plays, including a Romeo and Juliet performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.

This year, to mark the birthday celebration in Stratford, if you are fortunate enough to make the trip, there will be week’s work of festivities including fireworks, a procession, theatre workshops and a Shakespeare marathon.

I thought the Shakespeare marathon referred to some continuous performances of all the plays, but no, it’s an actual running marathon.  Why are so many events marked by lengthy footraces these days?  But I digress….

Closer to home, the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC will be hosting a Shakespeare’s Birthday Open House on Sunday April 6th.

Queen Elizabeth Cuts the Birthday Cake
Birthday cake, one-minute Shakespeare performances, and tours of the Folger are just some of the events on the schedule.

In addition  the Folger has recently released  all of Shakespeare’s plays as fully searchable digital texts, downloadable as pdfs, in a free, scholarly edition that makes all of its source code available as well. Taken from 2010 Folger Shakespeare Library editions edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, the digital plays are an invaluable resource for students,  Shakespeare scholars and fans.

If you don't want to travel downtown, Montgomery County Public Libraries will be joining the celebrations with a performance by the Christiana Drapkin Jazz Group entitled “Shakespeare in Jazz”.  
Vocalist Drapkin celebrates the beauty and power of William Shakespeare's poetry and presents it in lively, sometimes haunting jazz arrangements originally crafted in the 1960’s.  These settings of Shakespeare’s timeless verse seem to have been mostly forgotten, and MCPL is happy to be able to bring them to a present day audience.  The performance will take place at the Olney Library 4/26/14 at 2:00 PM.

So, Happy Birthday to you, Mr. S, and thanks for all the great lines you've given us!