Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Comics and Graphic Novels

Comics and Graphic NovelsWhen I think about comics, my earliest thoughts are warm childhood memories of reading the Garfield comic strips. There was something so laughable about that smart aleck cat, his put upon owner, Jon, and his always blissful dog, Odie. And who didn't love the friendship and adventures of Calvin and Hobbes? Of course, I also grew up with superhero comics, like Superman and Batman. It wasn't until I came to work at MCPL that I saw how comics, and now graphic novels, had grown into an amazing array of genres for kids, teens, and adults. It was so exciting and opened up a whole new way to enjoy stories with words and pictures!

Since history is a subject I'm always intrigued by, I was curious about how comics and graphic novels got started. So I had a look in our History in Context - U.S. resource where I found this great article from the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture about this amazing melding of words and pictures. My guess was that comics started out in the newspapers and turns out I was correct. It was in the late 19th century when comic strips first started to appear in newspapers. Comic strips in the 1930s started to be put into comic books that focused on cartoon characters and, you guessed it, superheroes.

Eventually some comic books started to be marketed with the term graphic novels and the form developed from there. It was the publication in 1986 of the award winning Maus by Art Spiegelman, about his father's captivity and survival during the Holocaust, that really catapulted the genre of graphic novels into mainstream reading. It was the first most widely read graphic novel. Other graphic novels in the 1980s also became well known, like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Watchman by Allan Moore and Dave Gibbons. As the increased interest in graphic novels grew, a specific type of Japanese comic art called manga was also included in the graphic novel category.

From there graphic novels have grown in popularity and into a wide variety of genres, including horror, Westerns, science fiction, mysteries, and memoirs. Some books for adults are getting in on the action and now have both a novel format and a graphic novel version, This includes one of my favorite series, Game of Thrones! Comic books and graphic novels are attracting critical buzz and have become an innovative way to tell engaging stories in the perfect blend of the visual and written word for kids, teens, and adults.

MoComCon January 21, 2017
So now that you are super excited to start checking out comic books and graphic novels, I have to share with you something that has been on my dream list for awhile and is about to become a reality! I have always wanted to attend a ComicCon and now I (and you!) have a chance come to one at our Silver Spring branch! We are thrilled to be holding our very first comic convention, MoComCon! It'll be a fabulous way to meet others who share your passion and also for those who are new to comic books and graphic novels. The event will include a variety of panels, workshops, programs, displays, exhibits, and cosplay — all free of charge. So save the date for January 21 from 12-4 PM (Inclement weather date February 4)!

Eager to find the engaging comic books and graphic novels you've been missing out on? Here are some ways to find the perfect comic book or graphic novel for you:

We invite you to discover new and exciting comics and graphic novels that you’ll enjoy today!


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What is Boxing Day?

19th century street scene on Boxing Day in England
Boxing Day by George Cruikshank 

As an immigrant to the U.S. from England, one of the most perplexing questions I’ve had to answer is “What is Boxing Day?” Growing up in England I never questioned why the day after Christmas, December 26, is a holiday too. It just is, in the way we take for granted the traditions we grow up with. I had some vague notion that it had to do with putting the empty boxes from Christmas gifts away in the attic, though we never actually did this ourselves. I also associated it with Dickens, and thought it probably originated in Victorian times. All I knew for sure is that it had nothing at all to do with the sport of boxing. So I had to do some research to come up with a satisfactory answer to Americans' questions. It turned out to be true that actual boxes are involved, but not in the way I thought.
Church alms box
Alms Box, All Saints Parish,
Moulton, Lincolnshire
attr. Richard Croft

The origin of the Boxing Day holiday goes back to early medieval times. Traditionally it was on December 26 that the alms boxes kept in churches to collect money for the poor were  opened and the contents distributed. The word “alms” has a very ancient history as I discovered by consulting the online Oxford English Dictionary. Originating with post-classical Latin and the Old English “aelmyssen” the word means “charitable relief given to the poor or needy usually in the form of money or food."

The probable reason December 26 was chosen for opening the alms boxes goes back even further in history. December 26 is the Feast Day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles. He was appointed one of seven deacons chosen to distribute food to the poor. 

In one of the earliest literary references to Boxing Day, Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diary on December 19, 1663:
"Thence by coach to my shoemaker’s and paid all there, and gave something to the boys’ box against Christmas."
In the early 18th century, Jonathan Swift grumbled about the amount of giving required of him:
“I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues of the coffee-house have raised their tax, every one giving a crown, and I gave mine for shame, besides a great many half-crowns to great men’s porters.”
But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of Boxing Day in literature was indeed by Charles Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers we find the rather obscure reference: “no man ever talked in poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’ day.”

By Dickens’ time, December 26 had evolved from a day when only the church distributed alms to a day when the “wealth or rank possessing” gave boxes of leftover foods and money to their servants. Servants and other lowly workers were required to work on Christmas Day so Boxing Day became their own traditional holiday. This led inevitably to complaints by censorious Victorians about the lower orders drinking and carousing in an unseemly manner!

Fox hunters and their dogs
Saltersgate Farmers Boxing Day Hunt
attr. David Ward

Although the sport of boxing itself has nothing to do the day, other sports are traditional on Boxing Day. In the countryside there are annual fox hunting meets (often accompanied by animal rights protests) and horse racing, while armchair sportsmen watch soccer matches. The more adventurous participate in 
Dips, swimming in the cold sea, sometimes in fancy dress. Modern times have also seen the rise of the sport of shopping. Boxing Day is the busiest shopping day of the year in England, with mobs of shoppers stampeding into stores as Americans do on Black Friday. We can be glad that some Boxing Day traditions have fallen by the wayside, such as the medieval practice of horse bleeding described in this poem by Thomas Naogeorgus:

Then followeth Saint Stephens day, whereon doth every man
His horses jaunt and course abroad as swiftly as he can
Until they doe extreemely state, and than they let them blood,
For this being done upon this day, they say doth do them good
And keepes them from all maladies and sicknesse through the yeare.

A modern movement to return Boxing Day to the spirit of St. Stephen encourages charitable giving.

Here are some online resources to help in choosing a reputable charity from our Nonprofits & Charities guide:

  • Charity Watch - A list of top-rated charities that spend 75% or more of their donations on programs.
  • Charity Navigator - A star system rating of over 8,000 charities.
  • Giving Wisely - This resource from the Maryland Secretary of State includes a searchable database of charities.
  • Montgomery County Volunteer Center - This Montgomery County Government resource lists local charities and the types of donations they accept.

These books in the MCPL collection include information on Boxing Day:

Whichever tradition you follow, may you enjoy this holiday season!

 Rita T.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

You Mean I Have to Pick Just One?

What's your favorite book? You'd think it'd be easy for a librarian to answer that question. Not for me. A coworker once told me how she gets that "deer in the headlights" look whenever someone asks her what her favorite book is. The titles of dozens of books flash before her eyes as she futilely attempts to weigh the merits of each one and determine which is the best. Is it the book she couldn't put down? The one that made her think to the most? The one she reread 5 times? I understand her dilemma.

I posed the question to another coworker. She responded almost immediately, "Queen by Alex Haley." Another person I asked said it'd been easier to make a list of favorites for each of the genres she reads. Though after some equivocating, she settled on Little Women as her all-time favorite. Rather than attempt to pin down my own favorite book from the last 38 years of my reading life, I'll just mention a few I've enjoyed.

Book cover for Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
I have long been a fan of science fiction and fantasy. One of the best fantasy series I've ever read are the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett (yes, he's a common favorite among librarians). These books have many of the standard fantasy tropes, like elves, dwarves, magic, and monsters, but they not our grandparents' fantasy books. They're full of satire and biting critique of politics, religion, and society. Imagine Mark Twain writing fantasy. Well, yes, Twain did write a fantasy book, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, but imagine him writing more. In Pratchett's book, Men at Arms, for instance, Captain Sam Vimes of the City Watch is ordered to recruit trolls, dwarves, werewolves, and even vampires into the all human City Watch to make the force more representatives of city's populace. It's all Vimes can do keep the dwarf and troll recruits from killing each other, never mind catch the rogue assassin terrorizing the city.

As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate non-fiction more. I recently read Elon Musk: Inventing the Future. Elon Musk is the founder and owner of Solar City, a solar energy provider; SpaceX, a private rocket manufacturer and orbital transport firm; and Tesla Motors, a high performance electric car manufacturer. Musk is an amazing entrepreneur. He's made, lost, and remade a fortune, He's challenged established giants like Boeing and General Motors. He created a car company from scratch. When was the last time someone started a new car company?

I don't think I'd want to work for him though. One of his aides, feeling burnt out after too many 70 hour weeks, took some time off. Musk said he'd do the aide's work during that time. When the aide returned to work, Musk said he had found it easier to do his own work and the aide's, and promptly fired the person for being redundant. I wouldn't want a boss who was so efficient that he could happily do his own job AND mine too!

Do you have one favorite book? Or is the last really good book you've read your favorite? Maybe limiting the question to 1 favorite is cruel. When we recently ask staff from throughout MCPL to tell us their favorite read of 2016, some of them responded with a dozen titles!

Book covers for The Fifth Season, Jacksonland, One the Edge of Gone, and Truthwitch
MCPL Staff's Favorite Reads of 2016
If you looking to find a new favorite or expand your reading, you could try a reading challenge. Our 2016 Reading Challenge contained different categories that encouraged readers to explore new territory. The categories included books by a local author, books by an author of a different race, religion, or ethnicity from your own, and books in a genre you typically don't read. Check out our Reading Challenge 2016 Pinterest board to see what books folks have read for the challenge, complete with hashtags to designate each book's applicable category.

Whether you have a favorite read or just a good one, let us know in the comments what books you've enjoyed and why. We'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Hamilton: Founding Father and Broadway Star

Cover image of the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron ChernowWant to learn more about Alexander Hamilton and the mega-hit Broadway musical based on his life?  (You can watch it online through 11/18.) MCPL has the resources to get you started!

At 700+ pages, Ron Chernow’s compelling biography, Alexander Hamilton, was the inspiration behind Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical. Chernow brings to life Hamilton’s Dickensian childhood in the West Indies as an orphaned illegitimate child, as well as his early struggles and successes in New York as war with Britain foments. He describes Hamilton’s vital role in the Revolutionary War as General Washington’s Aide-de-Camp, and his combative interactions with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams as they worked to build the fledgling nation. Chernow relays Hamilton’s evolving understanding of economic and political theory and how it shaped his decisions as America’s first Treasury Secretary—and later, the great tragedies that befall his life and lead to an early death in a duel with nemesis Aaron Burr.

Cover image of the book Alexander Hamilton the Outsider by Jean Fritz
While Chernow’s work is a tour-de-force, you may be interested in other biographies of Hamilton. MCPL’s collection also includes writings by Hamilton such as the Federalist Papers, a remarkable collection of 85 essays by Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison from 1788 that encouraged citizens to ratify the U.S. Constitution. For children and teens, MCPL holds several biographies, including award-winning author Jean Fritz’s Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider.

Want to know more about the genesis of the celebrated musical? As described on PBS, Lin-Manuel Miranda bought a copy of Chernow’s Hamilton in 2008 en route to his vacation. He immediately envisioned the possibility of a musical—and given Hamilton’s outsider status, outsized ambition and sense of honor—writing a hip hop score. Hamilton: The Revolution, co-written by Miranda, gives an insider’s view of the creative process, with essays, interviews, photos and lyrics. Miranda spent the next 6 years working on Hamilton, taking a full year to write the opening song, which he famously presented at the White House in 2009.

If you’re interested in the music score, MCPL holds copies of Hamilton: An American Musical. You can borrow the soundtrack through our Marina interlibrary loan service, or go to the label’s official page for lyrics and song excerpts. If Hamilton has piqued an interest in rap and hip-hop, listen to and download artists’ works such as Notorious B.I.G., DMX and Jay-Z on Freegal, MCPL’s free music download service. MCPL also has books on the history of rap and hip hop.

The national tour of Hamilton is scheduled to stop at the Kennedy Center in DC in June 2018 (!) For now, it continues its Broadway run, and opened in Chicago this past fall. If you happen to be in Manhattan, you can visit Hamilton's home, the Grange, and stop by his family’s burial sites at Trinity Church. The dueling ground where both Hamilton and his son were fatally shot is across the Hudson River in Weehawken, NJ.

Happy Hamilton-mania!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

E-Books, Audiobooks, & E-Magazines

headphones and smart device
My sister's friend once said to her, "Wouldn't it be great if the library had e-books that you could check out and they would return themselves at the end of the checkout so that you didn't have any fines?" My sister, knowing me who has worked for MCPL for the past 10 years, immediately replied, "They do!"

Not only do we have free and popular e-books, but we also have audiobooks and e-magazines that you can check out digitally. You can access these items from wherever you are and the items return themselves at the end of their checkout. No fines or fees to worry about. Speaking as someone who also uses these services, they are awesome!

We have two e-book services that have downloadable fiction and nonfiction for adults, teens, and children. These services are 3M Cloud Library and Maryland's Digital eLibrary Consortium/OverDrive. Both have apps that you can download to your smart phones and tablets to connect directly to great titles. Have a look to find your favorite titles that you've been wanting to read!

parents reading to child on tablet
If you are looking for children's books, you should also try Tumblebooks. It is an online collection of animated, talking picture books. It includes story books, chapter books, nonfiction, videos, and more. You read them within your browser as they are not downloadable.

If you like e-books on information technology, computing, and business, have a look at Safari Books Online. It contains the complete content of over 8000 books, with charts, graphics, and cut-and-paste code segments. Like Tumblebooks, the books in Safari are not downloadable. They're designed to be read from within your browser.

blue headphones
Enjoying listening to books or don't have enough time to sit down and read? Audiobooks are a great choice! I often am reading one book (and another for my book club!) and listening an audiobook while I do chores like folding the laundry. We have two audiobook services, Maryland's Digital eLibrary Consortium/OverDrive and OneClickDigital. Both services offer apps that you can download to your smart phone and tablets. Have a look to find stories that will sweep you up into the tale!
magazine covers - read digital magazines


Love reading magazines but hate paying a subscription fee? We can help you save 100%! We have two e-magazine services with popular titles for all ages, both current and back issues. They are Flipster and Zinio.

Flipster has many popular titles including -
  • Businessweek  
  • Ebony 
  • Entertainment Weekly 
  • Fortune
  • Ladybug 
  • People 
  • Ranger Rick 
  • Rolling Stone
  • Time and many more
Zinio has many other popular titles including -
  • Cosmopolitan 
  • The Economist 
  • Food Network Magazine 
  • Kiplinger's Personal Finance 
  • National Geographic 
  • Newsweek 
  • The Oprah Magazine
  • Smithsonian 
  • Us Weekly and more. 

Have a look at at our many other e-magazines offerings as well.

Consumer Help
customersYou may already own a smart phone or tablet to read or listen to these great e-books, audiobooks, and e-magazines. But if you don't, or you are looking to purchase one as a gift, we've got information to help you make the best choice. We have access to Consumer Reports articles where you can find expert ratings for many consumer products.

Whether you are traveling near or far this month, or staying home, you have access to a wealth of e-books, audiobooks, and e-magazines that can come directly to you.  Get started today! All you need is your device and a library card. Happy reading and listening!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ahhhh, here we go again—Thanksgiving is upon us. Feasting and family fun and football (for some) or shopping (for others) or hibernating far from the madding crowds.

While I do try to stay away from the crowds, I also like to get in a little activity in my day to balance out the gluttony in which I know I will indulge once dinner starts. No matter whether the menu includes healthy dishes or decadent treats, I always end up eating more than I know I should.

There are plenty of local “Turkey Trots” that you can find to burn off those extra calories. Or just get everyone bundled up while the turkey is roasting and head out for a quick walk in your neighborhood.

A comedy of holiday errors.
Make it meaningful by carrying along a bag and picking up trash as you go (your neighbors will be thankful!). If you have time to spare, find a way to give some time or talent through volunteering. That can make a big difference to people who can’t be with family or can’t pull together a feast of their own.

The library has plenty of books on Thanksgiving (for kids and adults) if you need some reading material for the long holiday weekend. Traveling? Pick up a recent audiobook for adults or for kids to break the tedium. 

No matter what you do or where you go for Thanksgiving, travel safe and enjoy yourself!

Tina R.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Veterans Day

Image of an eagle on a poster commemorating Veterans Day 2016In the United States, November 11 is a national holiday, Veterans Day. It is a day for honoring all those who have served in the American armed forces. It is different from Memorial Day, which is set aside to remember those died in military service. Veterans Day is for all US military veterans.

Some federal holidays, such as Columbus Day and Presidents Day, are officially observed on a Monday, to give everyone a long weekend. Veterans Day is different. Veterans Day is always celebrated on November 11 because of that date's historical significance. Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of World War I. That war's fighting ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, or 11:00 AM, November 11, 1918. After World War II the holiday was renamed Veterans Day, to honor American veterans of all wars. Despite the name change, Veterans Day remains linked to its historic origin. 

Who are America's veterans? Here are some figures from the US Census.
  • There are about 18.8 million American veterans
  • 1.6 million are women
  • Over 9 million are age 65 or older. 1.6 million are younger than 35
  • 11.6% are African American, 1.5 % are Asian, 6.4% are Hispanic, 0.7% are Native American, 78.3 % are white and 1.3% identified themselves as some other race.
If you want to learn more about our veterans, MCPL has many fine non-fiction books and videos about veterans.  I was particularly intrigued by the book Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel, which follows the lives of several members of an infantry battalion after they return home from a 15 month tour of duty in Iraq.

A wide variety of novels feature veterans as prominent characters. These books range from literary fiction to thrillers, historical fiction, and even romance novels. The Whiskey Rebels by Davis Liss, for instance, is a historical fiction novel that follows the lives of two Revolutionary War veterans struggling to establish lives amidst the turmoil and intrigue of our nation's early years.

MCPL has many resources for veterans entering the civilian workforce. Our Jobs and Careers page has links to career and self-assessment tools, as well as resources for creating resumes and cover letters. MCPL also offers online courses and tools to help veterans prepare for entrance and vocational tests such as the SAT, LSAT, NCLEX and many more.

Montgomery County's Department of Health and Human Services has a page dedicated to local veterans. This page offers information about local events of interest to veterans, as well as information about community organizations such as Serving Together that help veterans access local resources.  In addition to local resources, Maryland has a state level Department of Veterans Affairs that supports Maryland veterans with employment services, training, health services and financial programs.

Finally, among its many services, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a Returning Service Members section dedicated to military personnel transitioning to civilian life from service in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn.

We thank all veterans for their service and appreciate the contributions they continue to make to our community.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Strategic Plan FY2017 - 2020

MCPL strategic plan logo
Did you know that MCPL just released its Strategic Plan for FY2017-2020? Renowned business leader Peter Drucker once said, "Long-range planning does not deal with the future decisions, but with the future of present decisions." This is exactly what we are doing with our strategic plan. We are making decisions now that affect both what we currently are doing and what we are planning to do to meet our goal. Our goal is to provide access to services, resources, and programs that are important to you, the residents of Montgomery County.

How are we planning on doing that? Glad you asked! We are focusing on on four areas in our strategic plan. Here are some highlights about those areas.

Literate Montgomery: MCPL will provide opportunities to encourage language and life-skills literacies and lifelong learning.

  • Early Literacy/Reading Readiness: Increase diverse storytimes, resources for parents and caregivers, and STEM Go! Kits in all branches, and create the Jan Jablonski Early Literacy Training Center at the Noyes Library for Young Children.
  • English Language Literacy: Expand resources, services, and programs for English language learners.
  • Health Literacy: Increase programs and resources on personal health, wellness, and nutrition.
  • Digital Literacy: Increase programs and resources for all ages to interact with and learn about new technologies.
  • Financial Literacy: Provide programs and resources for all ages on personal finances.
  • Environmental Literacy: Increase resources and programs for all ages on environmental topics and green strategies.

Connected Montgomery: MCPL will provide opportunities to encourage inclusive and engaged communities.

globe - world langugages
  • Diversity: Create new programs to reflect language and cultural diversity, increase translation of promotional materials in the main languages spoken in the county, provide opportunities for residents to share family histories through oral history recordings, and hire an ADA coordinator to expand services to people with disabilities.
  • Customer Reach: Reach customers with targeted marketing campaigns using new media and technologies, and increase our presence at community events.
  • Civic Engagement: Provide resources to new residents, increase citizenship classes and naturalization ceremonies, and provide programs and resources to learn about current events.
  • Collaborative Spaces: Create multi-purpose spaces to promote collaboration as well as provide resources that encourage customers to build, experiment, and innovate.

Strong and Vibrant Montgomery: MCPL will provide opportunities to develop, increase, and hone workforce skills.

    Career Online High School
  • Skills for Gainful Employment: Provide access to high school diploma classes and online classes. Increase programs and resources in job skills.
  • Area and Regional Business and Government Areas Coordinator: Create opportunities for businesses to learn about other business, non-profits, and government agencies in the area.
  • Small Business Support: Increase small business programs and resources. Create business centers at all branches.
  • Skills for Job Seekers: Increase programs and resources in job searching and application skills.

Delighted Montgomery: MCPL will provide exceptional customer experiences by supporting and training staff, and reinforcing our infrastructure.

Inspire - Kensington Park
  • Inviting Spaces: Refresh branches, create collaboration spaces, and enhance accessibility.
  • Customer Driven Decision Making: Implement multi-channel mechanisms for gathering and evaluating customer feedback. Improve and adapt library services and spaces to meet customer needs.
  • Responsive Materials Process: Decrease wait times for new materials and match branch collections with community interests. 
  • Enhanced Programming: Create programs to reflect the diversity of our communities as well as increase programs and resources for independent use.
  • Relevant Technologies through the 21st Century Technology Funds: Provide up to date technologies and training that reflects the current and future needs of customers.
  • Effective Partnerships: Work with county agencies to provide a broader range of resources to customers.
  • Common Sense Policies & Procedures: Eliminate barriers to service, rewrite policies and procedures in plain language, and translate those policies and procedures into the main languages spoken in the county.
  • Effective Information Services: Conduct technology classes and help customers navigate e-resources.
  • Staff Recognition: Support staff with introducing innovative ways to meet community needs through programs and services. Encourage staff to share successes with all branches.
  • Staff Skills Support: Continually improve the customer experience through staff training and development. Encourage knowledge sharing among staff.
  • Staff Engagement with the Community: Create resources to introduce new customers to library services and identify ways for the library to address community needs.

Learn more about the MCPL Strategic Plan FY2017-2020. Also follow us on Twitter to see how we are implementing strategic plan.

We are excited about the opportunity to support, encourage, and inspire you to learn and grow!


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016

come write with us this november
Are you a writer?

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In this month, participants from around the world compete (against themselves) to write a novel of at least 50,000 words.

Participants can elect to register for free on the official NaNoWriMo website. NaNoWriMo offers additional fun resources for participants, including special pep talks from published authors, regional forums and events, and theme-based communities.

Whether you are participating in the official program or just trying to improve your writing, we want to help!

In November, we are offering writing events for customers of all ages. These include

More of a solitary writer? Come write in one of our branches. We offer:
  • WiFi;
  • Public Computers;
  • Electrical outlets; and
  • Writing resources in our collection;
Ready to move to the next step? Check out our valuable publishing resources!

Already published? Find information for authors wishing to be considered for our collection.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


Exterior of Versailles Palace

This summer I traveled to Paris for the first time and visited many of the iconic tourist destinations from the Eiffel Tower to Notre Dame, the Louvre, and Montmartre. But the highlight for me was the day we spent at Versailles. This was my personal reason for including Paris on our travel itinerary. I had always wanted to see the palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King. As a native Londoner I wondered if it was really more magnificent than Buckingham Palace. I found the answer is an unequivocal yes. The vast size of the building and gardens make Buckingham Palace look like a humble cottage. The sheer amount of gold ornamentation, baroque paintings, and sculptures covering every available surface, and idealized images of the Sun King everywhere you look is overwhelming. In the Hall of Mirrors, the mirrored walls and crystal chandeliers reflect and dazzle with an almost blinding light, the apotheosis of Louis’s self-aggrandizement. By the end of the day the French Revolution seemed an inevitable and necessary reaction to all this excess.

Versailles Hall of Mirrors

Here are some books I consulted before my trip so I would be an informed tourist:

A “fast-paced” (Kirkus Reviews) history of the building and the lifestyles of those who lived there, royalty and servants, from construction to the revolution.

The Gardener of Versailles by Alain Baraton.
This memoir by the gardener-in-chief at the palace since 1982 was a best-seller in France. While overseeing a team of 80 gardeners on the 2,100 acres, Baraton also deals with visitors who try to hide in the gardens overnight and other misadventures.

The popular biographer gives a lively account of the many women in Louis’s life from his mother and wives to his many mistresses. Also available as a CD Book.

The compelling story of a scandal that roiled the court at Versailles as a craze for fortune-telling and love potions ended in a witch-hunt and the burning of a woman accused of poisoning and sorcery. This book is available from Inter-Library Loan.

Not surprisingly the splendor and romance of Versailles have inspired many novelists, including these:

Versailles by Kathryn Davis.
A poignant historical novel told from the perspective of Marie Antoinette, for whom the palace was both playground and prison, separating her from the people who would determine her tragic fate.

Merivel: A Man of his Time by Rose Tremain.
A sequel to Restoration, this novel by the critically acclaimed author follows her anti-hero Sir Robert Merivel to Versailles where he hopes to become King Louis XIV’s physician. His adventures at the court he deems dazzling but superficial include an affair with a beautiful Swiss botanist and the rescue of a captive bear.

A Plague of Lies by Judith Rock.
A mystery featuring the series character Charles du Luc, a Jesuit priest in seventeenth century France. In this episode du Luc travels to Versailles to present Louis’s wife with the gift of a reliquary. But on his first night at the palace a courtier dies of suspected poisoning, and a gardener is found murdered.

Grounds of Versailles Palace

The gardens are perhaps the most spectacular part of Versailles. I had hoped to visit le Hameau de la Reine, the mock farm in the gardens of the Petit Trianon where Marie Antoinette and her ladies played at shepherdesses. But our guide pointed to the map of the gardens and explained that the Petit Trianon was a two hour hike away! That gave us some perspective on the vast scale of the palace grounds. We had quite a hike just exploring the gardens in the immediate vicinity of the palace. It would be easy to get lost in the maze of walkways between the many circular enclosed gardens hidden away behind walls and hedges. Each one came as a surprise, ingeniously disguised until you suddenly came upon it around a bend or up a rise. The most memorable was a fountain water garden heralded by the sound of baroque music playing. I couldn’t resist taking a video:

French music in the reign of Louis XIV was heavily influenced by Italian opera and ballet. In fact the leading composer at the French court, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was born in Italy. He changed his name from Giovanni Battista Lulli when he arrived in France in 1653. As I write I am listening to some of his compositions for Louis XIV on MCPL’s free music streaming service Classical Music Library.

Album cover for L'Orchestre Du Roi Soleil by Jean-Baptiste Lully
You can explore all MCPL’s music options here and pair your own reading with some related listening.

Finally, for a virtual tour of Versailles check out the DVD The Palace of Versailles: A Grand Tour inside the Historic French Palace.

After we left Versailles, suffering a kind of sensory overload from all the gold and glitter and baroque magnificence, we relaxed over traditional French crepes in a little bistro just a short walk away. Somehow our conversation turned to the French Revolution.

Rita T.