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Free Plays from the National Theatre of London

As a public service during the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Theatre of London places a video of one of its live performances on YouTube for free for a week at a time. This week enjoy a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, with Tamsin Grieg as "Malvolia," until Wednesday, April 30th, 7 p.m. UK time (That is noon Pacific Daylight Time).

Then starting noon Pacific Time on Wednesday the 30th, you can watch Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternate roles in a production of Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle, script by Nick Dear.

Next, starting May 7th, they return to Shakespeare with a performance of Anthony and Cleopatra starring Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. (Both Shakespeare plays directed by Simon Godwin.)

Keep checking the National Theatre at Home's homepage for updates.

Posted on Apr. 27, 2020 by Steven Dunlap

Lessons from Russian Satire

(All of the books and stories mentioned here the Mechanics Institute Library provides to members as eBooks). 

When we think to ourselves that we do not live in ordinary times we have to wonder whether our experience would look at all unique to those who lived in other places at other times. The Russians lived through times of crisis, with an incompetent and often cruel government. In the 19th century a satirist named Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote A History of a Town, that tells the story of townspeople who, generation after generation, submit to the increasingly cruel and bizarre dictates of the towns leaders. Sound familiar? 

"Everything worth learning about life you can learn from reading Chekhov," is an aphorism I truly believe. In The Bet, he tells the story of a man who bet his fortune that no one could live in isolation for 20 years.  For us it's only been a few months, but we all can relate to this story, perhaps in ways we could not before? 

In The Grasshopper, a vain, celebrity-obsessed woman takes her physician husband for granted, failing to appreciate until it's too late his generous and self-sacrificing soul and the essential work he did for so many people. I cannot help see the parallels to our present situation in which people most of us took for granted carry out their work under extremely difficult conditions without hazard pay. Similarly, How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials by Saltykov-Shchedrin tells a fable of how a peasant does all the work to support two officials stranded on an otherwise uninhabited island.  And in Agafya, a charming person proves shallow and destructive once you've become better acquainted with him. Again, sound familiar? And one of my all time favorite Chekhov stories, Ward No. 6, provides an indirect answer to the question: "Where do you find the only sane person in an insane world?"

(The Bet and  How a Muzhik Fed Two Officials appear in Best Russian Short Stories Compiled and Edited by Thomas Seltzer. Seltzer's anthology remains on of the most highly regarded translation of the stories it contains). 

Russian authors had to contend with censorship during the Tsarist regime but many found imaginative and inventive ways to "write around" the censors. Aleksander Radishchev's famous Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow read like a plain vanilla travelogue to the censors, describing a traveler's experiences going from one of the empire's major cities to the other.  But after its publication, with its descriptions of the harsh conditions in which serfs had to live contrasted with the extravagant livestyle of Catherine the Great's favorite, Count Potemkin, the fact that he not only wrote a work of fiction disguised as a travelogue but also a deliberately subversive work earned the author a death sentence, commuted to exhile in Siberia. (You can check out an ebook copy of Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow by registering, for free, with the Internet Archive).

We also have satirical Russian literature eAudiobooks. One of my favorites, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (and read expertly by George Guidall), tells the story of how the Devil visits the Soviet Union in the 1930s and fits right in. The story within the story about Pontius Pilate shows a remarkable abilty for compelling story-telling and as read in the audiobook shows Pilate in different light than any other work of literature. 

[The picture for this post, Russian Man (Antonion Zeno Shindler, 1813-1899. The Smithsonian American Art Museum.) comes from Smithsonian Open Access provided by the Smithsonian Institution, which has made over 3 million of its ditiized images freely available.]

Posted on Apr. 23, 2020 by Steven Dunlap

(Updated April 16) Streaming Opera from the Met -- For Free

The Metropolitan Opera has launched nightly Opera streams. Each night's performance will be available for 23 hours after it starts. To view/listen online 

  1. Go to the Met's webstie: 
  2. Register (free, look in the upper right corner of the window for the "Login/Register" link). 
  3. After you register (or login, if you're returning), click on the words "The Metropolitan Opera" at the top of the window. 
  4. The night's opera will have a "watch now" button on the Met's homepage. 

All “Nightly Met Opera Streams” will begin at 7:30pm EDT and will remain available via the homepage of for 23 hours.

Update April 16, 2020

The programming continues. Please go to the Metropolitan Opera's homepage to for the Schedule of performances up to April 26th. 

For more information, click here. [Schedule to April 5, see link above for current schedule of performances -- April 8, 2020].


        New York, NY (March 13, 2020)—A day after canceling upcoming performances due to concerns around the coronavirus, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it would stream encore presentations from the award-winning Live in HD series of cinema transmissions on the company website for the duration of the closure. The new offering will begin on Monday, March 16 with the 2010 HD performance of Bizet’s Carmen, conducted by Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and starring Elīna Garanča in the title role and Roberto Alagna as Don José.


       All “Nightly Met Opera Streams” will begin at 7:30pm EDT and will remain available via the homepage of for 23 hours. The homepage link will open the performance on the Met Opera on Demand streaming service. The performance will also  be viewable on all Met Opera on Demand apps.

Posted on Apr. 2, 2020 by Steven Dunlap

True Crime Roundup March 2020

In the first "True Crime Roundup" for 2020, we have a book by Joshua Hammer: The falcon thief : a true tale of adventure, treachery, and the hunt for the perfect bird. "A true-crime adventure about a rogue who trades in rare birds and their eggs-and the wildlife detective determined to stop him." (Hammer also wrote The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu, which proved very popular with MI members.) 

The story of an unrepentant birds’-egg thief who found a lucrative market for rare wild falcons on the Arabian Peninsula... (Continue reading the Kirkus Review) .


You may know Jerry Lee Lewis married his thirteen-year-old cousin, but did you know he shot his bass player in the chest with a shotgun or that a couple of his wives died under extremely mysterious circumstances? Or that Sam Cooke was shot dead in a seedy motel after barging into the manager's office naked to attack her? Maybe not. So begins the description of Disgraceland : musicians getting away with murder and behaving very badly, by Jake Brennan, a book that tells true crime stories of how rock stars do truly insane things and invite truly insane things to happen to them; murder, drug trafficking, rape, cannibalism and the occult.



In the book, 18 tiny deaths : the untold story of Frances Glessner Lee and the invention of modern forensics Bruce Goldfarb examines the work of a woman


"... born a socialite to a wealthy and influential Chicago family in the 1870s, was never meant to have a career, let alone one steeped in death and depravity. Yet she developed a fascination with the investigation of violent crimes and made it her life's work. Best known for creating the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of dioramas that appear charming-until you notice the macabre little details: an overturned chair, a blood-spattered comforter. And then, of course, there are the bodies-splayed out on the floor, draped over chairs-clothed in garments that Lee lovingly knit with sewing pins. Lee developed a system that used the Nutshells dioramas to train law enforcement officers to investigate violent crimes, and her methods are still used today. 18 Tiny Deaths is the story of a woman who overcame the limitations and expectations imposed by her social status and pushed forward an entirely new branch of science that we still use today." 

With an introduction by Judy Melinek, the author of Working stiff, another book popular with MI members. 



For a book more in the style of a police procedural, try The third rainbow girl : the long life of a double murder in Appalachia, by Emma Copley Eisenberg. 

In the early evening of June 25, 1980 in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, two middle-class outsiders named Vicki Durian, 26, and Nancy Santomero, 19, were murdered in an isolated clearing. They were hitchhiking to a festival known as the Rainbow Gathering but never arrived; they traveled with a third woman however, who lived. For thirteen years, no one was prosecuted for the "Rainbow Murders," though deep suspicion was cast on a succession of local residents in the community, depicted as poor, dangerous, and backward. In 1993, a local farmer was convicted, only to be released when a known serial killer and diagnosed schizophrenic named Joseph Paul Franklin claimed responsibility. With the passage of time, as the truth seemed to slip away, the investigation itself caused its own traumas--turning neighbor against neighbor and confirming a fear of the violence outsiders have done to this region for centuries. Emma Copley Eisenberg spent years living in Pocahontas and re-investigating these brutal acts. Using the past and the present, she shows how this mysterious act of violence has loomed over all those affected for generations, shaping their fears, fates, and the stories they tell about themselves. In The Third Rainbow Girl, Eisenberg follows the threads of this crime through the complex history of Appalachia, forming a searing and wide-ranging portrait of America--its divisions of gender and class, and of its violence.



For readers who like to read true tales of espionage and books about World War II, we have recently acquired An impeccable spy : Richard Sorge, Stalin's master agent by Owen Matthews. 

The thrilling true story of Richard Sorge - the man John le Carré called 'the spy to end spies', and whose actions turned the tide of the Second World War. Richard Sorge was a man with two homelands. Born of a German father and a Russian mother in Baku in 1895, he moved in a world of shifting alliances and infinite possibility. A member of the angry and deluded generation who found new, radical faiths after their experiences on the battlefields of the First World War, Sorge became a fanatical communist - and the Soviet Union's most formidable spy. Like many great spies, Sorge was an effortless seducer, combining charm with ruthless manipulation. He did not have to go undercover to find out closely guarded state secrets - his victims willingly shared them. As a foreign correspondent, he infiltrated and influenced the highest echelons of German, Chinese and Japanese society in the years leading up to and including the Second World War. His intelligence regarding Operation Barbarossa and Japanese intentions not to invade Siberia in 1941 proved pivotal to the Soviet counteroffensive in the Battle of Moscow, which in turn determined the outcome of the war. Never before has Sorge's story been told from the Russian side as well as the German and Japanese. Owen Matthews takes a sweeping historical perspective and draws on a wealth of declassified Soviet archives - along with testimonies from those who knew and worked with Sorge - to rescue the riveting story of the man described by Ian Fleming as 'the most formidable spy in history'.


(Note: all summaries in this post adapted from publisher descriptions and/or dust jackets).

Posted on Feb. 24, 2020 by Steven Dunlap

Nobel Prizes in Literature for 2018 and 2019

The Swedish Academy has announce the winners of both the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in literature today (October 10, 2019). 

Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 award for her book Flights 

  • It's not a novel exactly. It's not even a collection of intertwined short stories, although there are longer sections featuring recurring characters and well-developed narratives. Overall, though, this is a series of fragments tenuously linked by the idea of travel through space and also through time and a thoughtful, ironic voice. Movement from one place to another, from one thought to another, defines both the preoccupations of this discursive text and its style. 
  • Read a review in the New Yorker.

Peter Handke won the 2019 award for his book The Moravian night : a story 

  • An unnamed writer invites friends to a houseboat docked in the Balkans, where he regales them with stories of his travels across Europe. The writer's personal history is bound up with that of Central Europe, including stops in places irrevocably changed by time.
  • Read a review in Kirkus.


(MI Library members please click on the titles above to read additional summaries/reviews and/or to place a hold on the book). You can also read more about these authors and their works in the Washington Post.

Last year a scandal involving sexual assault and financial malpractice led the Swedish Academy to decide not to award a prize for literature in 2018 but to award the prize for 2018 at the same time as the one for 2019. 


Posted on Oct. 10, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

True Crime Roundup October 2019

For all our true crime readers we have six new titles we acquired in the last couple months that you may enjoy. (Click on a title below to place a hold). 

The ghosts of Eden Park : the bootleg king, the women who pursued him, and the murder that shocked jazz- age America / Karen Abbott.

  • In the early days of Prohibition, long before Al Capone became a household name, a German immigrant named George Remus quits practicing law and starts trafficking whiskey. Within two years he's a multi-millionaire. The press calls him King of the Bootleggers," writing breathless stories about the Gatsby-esque events he and his glamorous second wife, Imogene, host at their Cincinnati mansion, with party favors ranging from diamond jewelry for the men to brand-new Pontiacs for the women. By the summer of 1921, Remus owns 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States. Pioneering prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrandt is determined to bring him down. Willebrandt's bosses at the U.S. Attorney's office hired her right out of law school, assuming she'd pose no real threat to the cozy relationship they maintain with Remus. Eager to prove them wrong, she dispatches her best investigator, Franklin Dodge, to look into his empire. It's a decision with deadly consequences. -- Provided by publisher.

Know my name : a memoir / Chanel Miller.

  • Not a typical true crime book. We include it here because this important book describes a crime and its aftermath. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting "Emily Doe" on Stanford's campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral, was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress. It inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Now Miller reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words.She tells of her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial, reveals the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios, and illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators.


My friend Anna : the true story of the fake heiress who conned me and half of New York City / Rachel DeLoache Williams.

  • The From a photo editor at Vanity Fair comes the true account of her friendship with Anna Delvey--a woman posing as a German heiress who conned her out of $62,000--and her quest to obtain justice. 


Savage appetites : four true stories of women, crime, and obsession / Rachel Monroe.

  • In this illuminating exploration of women, violence, and obsession, Rachel Monroe interrogates the appeal of true crime through four narratives of fixation. In the 1940s, a bored heiress began creating dollhouse crime scenes depicting murders, suicides, and accidental deaths. Known as the "Mother of Forensic Science," she revolutionized the field of what was then called legal medicine. In the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, a young woman moved into Sharon Tate's guesthouse and, over the next two decades, entwined herself with the Tate family. In the mid-nineties, a landscape architect in Brooklyn fell in love with a convicted murderer, the supposed ringleader of the West Memphis Three, through an intense series of letters. After they married, she devoted her life to getting him freed from death row. And in 2015, a teenager deeply involved in the online fandom for the Columbine killers planned a mass shooting of her own. A combination of personal narrative, reportage, and a sociological examination of violence and media in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Savage appetites is a journey into obsession, scrupulously exploring empathy, justice and the persistent appeal of crime. 


Without a prayer : the death of Lucas Leonard and how one church became a cult / Susan Ashline.

  • The horrifying true story of a killing inside the secluded Word of Life Christian Church, a parish-turned-cult in upstate New York. Teenager Lucas Leonard made shocking admissions in front of the altar―he'd practiced witchcraft, conspired to murder his parents, and committed unspeakable crimes. The confessions earned him a brutal beating by a gang of angry church members, including his parents and sister. Lucas was brought to the hospital dead, awakening the sleepy community of Chadwicks, New York, to the horror that had been lurking next door.


Moneyland : the inside story of the crooks and kleptocrats who rule the world / Oliver Bullough.

  • Another title atypical of the true crime genre but an important and engaging read nonetheless. From ruined towns on the edge of Siberia, to Bond-villain lairs in London and Manhattan, something has gone wrong. Kleptocracies, governments run by corrupt leaders that prosper at the expense of their people, are on the rise. Investigative journalist Oliver Bullough traveled around the world to find Moneyland--the secret country of the lawless, stateless superrich. (His unsucessful attempt to visit the physical address of a shell company on the island of Nevens reads like a Kafka novel). Learn how the institutions of Europe and the United States have become money-laundering operations, attacking the foundations of many of the world's most stable countries. Meet the kleptocrats. Meet their awful children. And find out how heroic activists around the world are fighting back.


(Note: all summaries in this post adeapted from publisher descriptions and/or dust jackets except for Without a prayer, adapted from the summary).

Posted on Oct. 9, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Pico Iyer's new book about Japan

PIco Iyer has written books that many Mechanics' Institute members have shown they like: our records show his books have had numerous check-outs, in particular his 1991 book about Japan, The lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto. Iyer has returned to this subject with his newest work A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations. Given interest by MI members in Japan and travel, as well as this author's popuarity, we expect this one to be another well-read addition to our collection. Click on this link to place a hold.

British born of Indian parents, Iyer is best known for his writings on culture and philosophy inspired by his extensive travels. He started out in his youth bouncing back and forth several times a year between California, where his parents lived, and England, where he attended college. His early sense of "rootlessness" led him to feel comfortable with being an outsider where he lives despite having lived in Japan for almost 30 years. In addition to his travellogues and philosphical works, he has also published two novels, Cuba and the Night (recently ordered), and the one already in our collection, Abandon: A Romance, which has also proven very popular here. As a consequence of his life-long fascination with Graham Greene, Iyer once ventured into literary criticism with The Man Within My Head in 2012.

Please note: we cannot see who has checked out a given book after a member has returned it and paid the overdue fine (if any). We can only see a total number of times a book has been checked out. 

Posted on Sep. 29, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

President Trump Impeachment Primary Sources

We have the "Whistleblower" complaint that originated from somewhere within the Dept. of Homeland Security on August 12, 2019 that the U.S. House Intelligence committee released on September 26, 2019, available as .PDF or as an eAudiobook. Penguin has very quickly turned around a free audiobook for streaming or download from its blog, and read by an award winning e-book narrator, Saskia Maarleveld. 

  • Click here for The .PDF format, available via the U.S. Government Printing office.
  • Click here for the eAudiobook format, available from Penguin. 

The Inspector General of the Intelligence Community's (ICIG) report about this complaint is available via a number of news outlets. This "report about the complaint" is not available for download to date, but can be read on the WWW from the following sites. (Advertisements and entreaties to register will pop-up. None are endorsed by the Mechanics Institute). 


Posted on Sep. 27, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

How Not to Fall for a Scam

Many people know about Frank Abignale from having watched the movie Catch Me If You Can (starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks). The real-life Frank Abignale has spent his post-criminal life working to prevent the sort of crimes he used to commit. Contrary to the movie version, he never accepted money from law enforcement, providing his consulting services and classes to law enforcement agencies for free. He has made his living advising corporations and banks. For example, the forgery deterent measure that we typically see on machine-generated checks -- the black box of "negative space" that shows the numerals in the white of the paper -- was his invention. In his earlier book, The Art of the Steal, he explained various cons that affect businesses and indivduals, along with advice for how to avoid them. Now as many of us grow older and plan for or have already started living on our investments, reading his newest book takes on a great deal of importance. 

Abignale writes in a clear, direct style that communicates his advice very effectively. His use of colorful examples and anecdotes to illustrate his points makes his books a pleasure to read. In addition, he has kept up with technological progress. Abignale provides advice about what photo not to post on social media, the best way to protect your phone from being hacked, and the only conditions under which you should use the WIFI networks at the airport, to name a few. Most importantly, much of his advice proves a bit counter-intuitive, making it all the more necessary to read up on the latest cons because the counter-measures would not occur to most of us.

To place a hold, Log into your library account then click on this title: Scam Me if you Can : Simple Strategies to Outsmart Today's Rip-off Artists

FYI, another book by Frank Abignale on this topic, published in 2007: Stealing Your Life : The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan. (Online version available free from the Internet Archive; you must register for a free account to access). 

Posted on Sep. 19, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

The Hugo Winners -- Science Fiction Update

The winners of the Hugo Awards for best science fiction of the year, announced at the 77th World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland on August 18th, include some titles in our collection, print, e-book and DVD:

Best Novel: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

  • An alternate history in which a meteorite obliterates most of the East coast of the U.S. in 1952, leading to a climate cataclysm that will soon render the earth inhospitable for humanity. The accellerated space program to colonize the solar system includes women, but only on the ground. A woman pilot and mathematician works to overcome the obstacles of 1950s American society to become the first woman astronaut.

Best Novella: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

  • "Murderbot" wants to know about the massacre. Teaming up with a research transport vessal named ART (you don't want to know what the A stands for), Murderbot heads to the mining facility where it went rogue. What it discovers will forever change the way it thinks. 

The library also has the 4 books in the Murderbot Diaries series, but some only as e-audiobooks. Please let us know if you would like us to order the print format as these books have proven very popular with MI members. 

Best Series: Wayfarers by Becky Chambers

  • Reviewers have noted the similarities to Firefly, (Joss Whedon), Mass Effect, and Star Wars. Serious and comedic, the books in this series examine questions of identity and inter-species communication/cooperation with a light touch. An upbeat and optimistic antidote to dystopias and alien invasions. The library has the first two novels of this series: The Long Way to a Small, Angry planet and A Closed and Common Orbit.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse [DVD]

  •  Miles Morales is the new Spider-Man but must also walk the balance between his personal high school & family life and his life as a superhero. While being Spider-Man, he becomes familiar with the Spider-Verse, where there are endless variations on Spider-Man. One of the Spider-Man variations living inside the Spider-Verse is Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker, who guides Miles in his journey as the new Spider-Man and introduces him to the multitude of other Spider-Men, including Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Ham. All of the various Spider-Men will have to band together when villains threaten the safety of the Spider-Verse and of the world itself.

Posted on Sep. 15, 2019 by Steven Dunlap