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Staff Picks: The Mystique of Music

Music is one of those things. We can’t always define it, or explain why we love what we love, but its power is unmistakable. Music and identity are inextricably linked: we often define ourselves by what we listen to. your favorite song (or band, or genre) -- your brain probably got there before your words did. Did you conjure up a few notes, belt out a couplet of lyrics, or smell the sweat coming off everyone in the crowd at the last live show you attended?

Music can be a transcendent influence. This month, Mechanics’ Institute staff select books about the mysteries, glories, and stories behind the music we love. Come check out the staff picks display to see what makes us tick.

Taryn selects Opera and the morbidity of music by Joseph Kerman

Classical music is dead. Long live classical music! Despite the title, the author makes it clear that what we call "classical music", including opera, is anything but dead. Vital and joyously alive is how I'd describe these essays and book reviews.

Bobbie selects Unknown pleasures: inside Joy Division by Peter Hook

If you are a fan of the group New Order then you probably know they originated as Joy Division in the late 70’s post-punk era. They were on the verge of mainstream success and about to embark on their first American tour when lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide. This book by bassist Peter Hook recounts Joy Division’s creation, the band mates’ deteriorating relationships, the demise of the band, and then rebirth as New Order. If you want to see Ian Curtis’ story on film, the DVD Control follows his rise and fall as the leader of the band.

Chris selects Let's talk about love: a journey to the end of taste by Carl Wilson

In this installment of the 33 1/3 book series from Bloomsbury, where an author addresses a single LP in great detail, Salon music critic Carl Wilson shares his take on the jewel in the crown of Celine Dion's career. Highly polarizing, the album was commercially embraced to near ubiquity while it was critically derided, author included. Revisiting the album, Wilson investigates the album and Celine's career, unpacking the sensibilities and narratives that created such controversy, discussing the nature of taste, cultural capital and what it means to be a fan (or not a fan) of a particular artist. Funny, generous and optimistic, this short book is a great journey through the art/pop divide.

Heather selects High fidelity by Nick Hornby

At Championship Vinyl, Rob Fleming and his crew spend their workday discussing the fine art of mix tapes, devising “top five” lists, and arguing about all things music. One problem: his long-time girlfriend has just dumped him because of his chronically juvenile behavior. Rob goes on an odyssey of self-discovery to figure out how music and love fit into his adult life. This novel twines together an obsession with music and an acute existential crisis -- two of my favorite things to explore in fiction.

Posted on Feb. 3, 2015 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Playing in the Library - Sports


Mechanics’ Institute Library staff kicks off the new year by recommending books about pursuits that engage not only the mind, but the body as well. You’ll find one of my personal favorites, The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise and Other Incendiary Acts by one of my favorite authors, Hanne Blank. There will be books about the sociological aspects of sport (e.g., The Secret Lives of Sports Fans by Eric Simons), as well as the mechanics of sport (e.g., Runner’s World Complete Book of Running by Amby Burfoot). Whether you’re a spectator or an athlete (or both!), you’re sure to find something to pique your interest on this month’s display.

Chris recommends Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (FIC)

In a favorite of both Zadie Smith and Barack Obama, we follow Hans, a recent immigrant from the Netherlands to New York City, as he navigates life in his new home. When the rest of his family returns to Europe following the 9/11 attacks, Hans spends more and more time playing cricket with other individuals who have recently made America home. A realistic and affirming look at sporting, place and community.

Taryn recommends Bike Snob: Systematically and Mercilessly Realigning the World of Cycling by BikeSnobNYC Magazine (796.6 B594)

BikeSnobNYC has made you snort coffee all over your new Bicycling Magazine issue, reassess your gear, and wonder - is it OK to wear arm warmers that don't match my jersey? Relive all the funny moments and fall in love again with cycling.

Bobbie recommends This Love is Not For Cowards by Robert Andrew Powell  (796.334 P882)

Just across the Rio Grande from the US lies Juarez, Mexico. Very possibly the most murderous city in North America. Cartels, death squads, and police battle over billions of dollars in drug profits yet the city survives and is passionate about their soccer team, the Indios. The club offers hope and gives the community a sense of pride lost among the chaos of daily life.

Deb recommends Long Distance Running for Beginners by Michael Spilling and Sean Fishpool (796.42 S756)

I decided my early morning walks needed some variety and wanted to start running again. I spotted this book on the New Nonfiction Book Table and checked it out. It covers everything from how to get started with a running program (even for someone like me who does not plan to do long distance running), the right clothing to wear, avoiding injuries, etc. I found the section on how to begin running and how to increase distance without overdoing it very valuable.

Posted on Dec. 29, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Fascinating People


This month at Mechanics’ Institute Library, get inspired for the new year. Staff will select books about the fascinating individuals who people our collection – the lives of others who inspire, entertain, and encourage us! Get acquainted with your fellow human beings through their words and works, and enjoy these stories told about them.

Deb recommends Florence Nightingale: The Making of an Icon by Mark Bostridge  (92 N688b)

Her name is legendary, but this biography reveals much about who Florence Nightingale really was. Most of us know about her service to wounded and ill soldiers during the Crimean War, but that was only two years in her nearly six decades of service. If you want to dive deep into Nightingale’s life, 19th century hospital and healthcare reform, and her role in it, this book is for you.

Taryn recommends The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane by Richard Eulain  (92 C141)

I grew up on Doris Day's version of Calamity Jane -- this wonderful account lends a refreshing bit of reality!

Heather recommends Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson  (822.3 B91)

In general, Bill Bryson is always a delight. In specific, this slim biography of Shakespeare is as much about what we cannot know about the bard as what we do know about his life.


Posted on Dec. 1, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Pigs, and Rats, and Kittens, oh my!

They are endlessly entertaining (pets), fascinating (octopi), sometimes terrifying (cockroaches!), and occasionally delicious (does tofurky count?) — Animals are an integral part of our human lives, and Mechanics’ Institute Library has many books which will allow you to consider our creaturely kin in a new light. My colleagues have picked some interesting books this month. I can’t wait to read every one of them! Here’s a sampling of what’s on display:

CHRIS selects:

Timbuktu by Paul Auster

A homeless poet and his dog travel from New York City to Baltimore, hoping to find their long lost friend. Narrated by Mr. Bones, a loyal and deeply thinking dog, Timbuktu is a short and touching story about life on the fringes and the comforts of companionship.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

Wherein a philosophical gorilla telepathically offers an ecologically sustainable worldview and life-approach to a questioning student. Harsh but hopeful, this should appeal to Jared Diamond fans as much as young environmentalists.

TARYN selects:

A Feathered River Across the Sky by Joel Greenberg

A depressing account of animal extinction -- read it and help change the world!

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think  by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

This is only going to confirm what you already suspect - your dog is smarter than you are.

Knit Your Own Zoo by Sally Muir

Make your own menagerie! Adorable knittable animals!

ANTHONY selects:

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

This harrowing and extremely persuasive book starts with a simple premise: the author has had his first child and sets out to investigate whether or not he should raise the child as a meat eater. Along the way we encounter irreparable ecological devastation, apocalyptic contagions, the utter perfidiousness and moral bankruptcy of an entire industry and the regulatory bodies created to monitor it, and feces lagoons. Even if you hold absolutely zero empathy for the animals that we slaughter and consume, the sheer vileness of the process that gets them into our stomachs is as revolting and terrifying as anything you are likely to read in last month’s Horror Recommendations. And that applies doubly to absolute devastation on the communities that shoulder the burden of industrial meat processing plants (did I already mention the feces lagoons?). As an avid meat eater prior to reading this book four years ago, I can now fully attest to the reality that the ONLY viable reason to eat meat is this: it tastes good. But it's what we're not tasting that will chill your blood (spoiler alert: it's feces, urine, fear sweat, and chilled blood that we're not tasting). Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted on Nov. 3, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Scary Stories


In the spirit of the season, Mechanics’ Institute staff will be selecting their favorite tales of mystery and terror this month. Here’s a taste of what you might find on display to snuggle up with on October 31st.

Chris recommends The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

In Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, an epidemic sweeps through the country practically overnight; the speech of children begins to make parents devastatingly ill. The story follows a small family as they navigate chaos, uncertainty and experimental treatments in an increasingly unfamiliar world. While Marcus favors a poetic and lyrical style over tense minimalism, Cormac McCarthy's familial survival tale The Road is a worthy comparison, sharing a similarly bleak outlook while quietly retaining heroism and hope.

Craig recommends The Rocky Horror Picture Show (DVD)

A screamingly funny salute to sci-fi, horror, and rock music, all rolled into one. This popular cult classic stars Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon and rock star Meat Loaf.

 and Sudden Fear (DVD)

Joan Crawford provides an emotionally charged performance as a playwright who uses her plotting skills to save her own life. This well crafted film noir thriller is an unbeatable combination of lush melodrama and drop-dead suspense.

Matt recommends... the classics – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Heather recommends...from The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James to the modern horror of Koji Suzuki’s Sadako Yamamura (the antagonist in Ring) – this is one of my favorite genres of story to read: the ghost story.

But what about specters in the real world? There’s no better place to begin than with Mary Roach. With her usual wit and aplomb, she explores the facts and the not-so-factual claims of those who deal with ghosts and ghouls in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (129 R62).

Posted on Oct. 7, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Historical Collections

This month, get to know the multifaceted historical collection at Mechanics’ Institute Library through a few staff members’ favorite tomes. We’ll be selecting books about historical periods that interest us. Here’s a sample of the works that will be on display:

Taryn recommends Brave Companions by David McCullough (920 M133b)

Seventeen short biographies that McCullough penned over the years for various magazines enlighten the reader about the subject’s extraordinary, if not well known, contributions to life as we know it in the modern world.

Craig recommends The Plantagenets: the warrior kings and queens who made England by Dan Jones (942.03 J72)

The author examines the period when eight kings ruled England in succession, starting with Henry II, who inherited the Crown in 1154 and ending with the overthrow of Richard II in 1399. He vividly describes the triumphs, savagery, cruelty, and disasters during this turbulent and violent period -- the time of Thomas Becket, the Crusades, the founding of parliament, the Black Death, the Hundred Years War with France, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 -- a period when England became a major European power.

Chris recommends My American Century by Studs Terkel (920.073 T318)

Collecting excerpts of previously published material by Studs Terkel, this volume presents the story of America, from the 1920's to modern day, in the author's signature oral history style. Terkel forgoes a grand thesis, instead allowing his interviewees to speak for themselves, allowing the sum of their lived experiences and perspectives to create the larger narrative. My American Century serves both as a serviceable introduction to one of the great historians of our time, as well as an unadulterated survey of the modern American experience straight from those who lived it.

Heather recommends For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and the Revolutions by James Gaines (973.4 W318g)

The “sister revolutions” of the French and the Americans have always fascinated me. While the French were rioting over the price of bread, across the Atlantic the American rabble-rousers were making their own bid for freedom from monarchy. This book shows how intertwined the two revolutions were, and how they changed the world in their wake.

Posted on Sep. 3, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Fiction

This month’s staff picks display will be dedicated to fiction. Story engages us in all the worlds our collective experience encompasses. Whether you’re a devotee of fiction or just want to give something new a try, check out the Mechanics’ Institute Library staff’s favorites.

Taryn recommends Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon—when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles, she finds herself transported suddenly to a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord...1743. Time travel, mystery, romance, and war are the themes that permeate this epic story. Be prepared, you’ll spend the rest of 2014 reading the subsequent novels. Move over Game of Thrones!

Chris recommends A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Initially self published in 2008, and reprinted last year by University of Chicago Press (who rarely deal in fiction, we follow the tremendously talented but overworked New York City public defender Casi. Despite his proficiency and the respect earned from his clients and coworkers, he begins to find his work increasingly futile. Frustrated, he begins to entertain acting on the other side of the law. Just shy of 700 pages, the novel may be initially intimidating, but his authentic voice (De La Pave himself works as a public defender), hilarious dialogue, and genuine concern for social justice makes it difficult to put down.

Diane recommends Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Semple’s epistolary tale is about Bernadette, a brilliant Los Angeles architect, who suffers a nervous breakdown following a calamitous confrontation with a neighbor and moves to Seattle with her Microsoft-employed husband and her daughter.  In a story told through emails, letters, shopping bills, report cards, etc. the reader comes to understand the forces that changed Bernadette into a near agoraphobic who shuns human interaction until forces beyond her control sent her on a journey she never intended to take.  Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a funny and heartwarming novel about a dysfunctional family as well as a satiric portrayal of an entitled society.

Jussi Adler-Olsen is a prize-winning mystery writer and the most popular crime writer in Denmark.  The Keeper of Lost Causes is the first in a series of novels featuring Carl Mørck, one of Copenhagen’s best homicide detectives.  However, when two of Carl’s colleagues are killed in an ambush, without him having even pulled his gun, Carl is re-assigned to Department Q to re-investigate cold cases.  In a department of one, until he hires an untrained but enthusiastic assistant, Carl desultorily looks through old cases until his attention becomes riveted on the case of the disappearance and presumed death of a beautiful, liberal politician.  The police procedural is compelling, and the portrayal of a slightly damaged detective is both darkly comic and heartrending.


Posted on Aug. 1, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Travel

Summer vacation is upon us! Whether you’re a seasoned globe trotter or an armchair traveler, Mechanics’ Institute Library has plenty to whet your appetite for intriguing locales and all the interesting people you’ll meet in those intriguing locales. Staff members have selected a wide array of books to set your mind wandering, if not your body!

Check out the Staff Picks display on the second floor for these and many other engaging titles to choose from.

Heather selects Quiet Paris by Siobhan Wall (914.436 W187) and Hidden Gardens of Paris by Susan Neunzig Cahill (914.436 C128)

If you’d like to avoid the hustle and bustle of the typical Parisian tourist attractions, even if just for a day or two of your trip, check out these two guides to the less frenetic side of La Ville-Lumière. With recommendations for libraries, gardens, and low-key cafes, these guides made my recent side trip to Paris a welcome recovery from the late-late nights of a heady European summer vacation!

Chris recommends Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Fiction)

Shortly after finishing school, young American Adam Gordon is awarded a writer's fellowship to produce a long-form piece on the Spanish Civil War. Placed in Madrid for an extended period of research, he is confronted by his own lack of historical understanding as well as doubts about the power of art and poetry. During his long, unstructured days in Madrid, the traveler’s opportunity to present himself in the most flattering but untruthful light seduces him, and he soon finds himself deep in false claims. As he becomes more than a mere tourist in Madrid, Adam navigates friendships and romances, and is witness to political turmoil that makes urgent history that he had before only understood as abstract. Luckily for the reader, Adam is as bright and articulate as he is self-conscious and destructive; his musings on art, America, tourism, and his own struggles with authenticity are brilliantly told.

Posted on Jul. 9, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Interiors

School’s out for summer: maybe the kids are home, the grandkids are visiting, or you’re taking a much needed vacation.  It may not be the traditional time of year to think about feathering one’s nest, but this month’s staff picks topic isn’t only about decorating the house.  June brings to mind summer blooms and midday naps: both nature and nurture.

Mechanics’ Institute staff members will be selecting their favorite entertaining, gardening, and interior design books – as well as books that nurture the mind, from fiction to philosophy – works that help us focus on our own interiors.

Craig recommends Good Taste Costs No More by Richard Gump (747 G97)

One of my favorite books on the topic of home care was written by Richard Gump (then the head of Gump's of San Francisco) back in 1951. Today, it is still a fun read, as Mr. Gump offers a ruthless but readable appraisal of the home furnishings field, exposing the tricks of the trade (at that time) which often led the customer astray. Needless to say, it includes plenty of practical suggestions for decorating your home.

Chris recommends The Foxfire Book (390.0973 F79)

This collection of material from Foxfire Magazine is a great resource for any homesteader or history lover. Covering everything from building a log cabin to making the perfect moonshine, this how-to guide of simple living was sourced from older residents in Appalachian Georgia through oral interviews. Initially published during the heyday of the back-to-the-land-movement of the late 60's, the magazine became a crucial resource for idealists seeking foundations for a new lifestyle. As an apartment dwelling city person, only the tiniest sliver of content is of functional value to me, but it is still a fascinating collection of preserved folklore and ingenuity.

Taryn recommends The Octopus : A Story of California and McTeague by Frank Norris (FIC)

Written by Mechanics' member Frank Norris who died at the tender age of 32. The Octopus is based on an actual, bloody dispute between wheat farmers and the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1880. If you enjoy realism a la Zola and Dreiser you will enjoy Norris' work.

Also, try McTeague -- brilliant, terrifying, and smells like San Francisco. You'll never sit in a dentist's chair again without thinking of this novel.

Posted on Jun. 9, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Fiction by Pulitzer Prize Nominees

In 1917, publisher Joseph Pulitzer established the prize that bears his name. Administered by Columbia University, the award for distinguished fiction by an American author is selected from entrants in fields as varied as short stories, novellas, fictional poetry, and novels. The 2014 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was announced in April. Philipp Meyer’s The Son and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis were finalists; Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch took the prize.

To highlight the award-winning authors in our collection, Mechanics’ Institute staff members will choose our favorite works by Pulitzer winners and finalists. Here are a few of our selections:

Chris recommends: Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Goon Squad (2011’s Pulitzer winner) explores youth and its inevitable passing, following a group of high school friends drawn together by punk music in the late 1970's San Francisco. Despite changes in narrator and style (e.g., a chapter in PowerPoint, dialogue presented in truncated mobile phone 'TXT SPEK'), the book is accessible, moving, and extremely funny. Fans of Zadie Smith's most recent book, NW, will find the pairing of formal novelty and sophisticated characterization to be equally successful here.

Diane recommends: Herman Wouk

I clearly remember reading both The Winds of War and War and Remembrance in high school and being enthralled by them. While they may not be some of Wouk's best writing, they certainly brought World War II into focus for me in an interesting way. The books are much better than the miniseries with Robert Mitchum.

Heather recommends: Cormac McCarthy

Whether you think of Cormac McCarthy as a neo-gothic or a post-apocalyptic writer, his works are inhabited by the spirit of the American West: idealistic, barbaric, and stark. On one end of the spectrum, there’s Blood Meridian: stream of consciousness, uber-violent, with strange and terrifying characters. On the other end, the Border Trilogy: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain are written in straightforward narrative form, beginning as a love letter to the freedom of being on the road with a horse and a crew.

Deb recommends: E.L. Doctorow

When I read World’s Fair, I felt I had been transported back in time to life in the 1930s when the 1939 World's Fair provided excitement and respite from a world emerging from the Great Depression.

Posted on May. 1, 2014 by Heather Terrell