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True Crime Roundup August 2019

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

The five : the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper / Hallie Rubenhold.

  • The untold story of the women killed by Jack the Ripper. Few people even know their names. For more than a century newspapers have been keen to tell us that 'the Ripper' preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, but it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told.

Kingdom of lies : unnerving adventures in the world of cybercrime / Kate Fazzini.

  •  A nineteen-year-old Romanian student stumbles into a criminal ransomware ring in her village. Soon she is extorting Silicon Valley billionaires for millions. A cynical Russian only leaves his tiny New Jersey apartment to hack sports cars at a high-performance shop in Newark. A hotel doorman in Shanghai once served in the People's Army, stealing intellectual property from American companies. They all come together in a tangled web connecting small-time criminals, multi-billion-dollar corporations, and global superpowers.

The last pirate of New York : a ghost ship, a killer, and the birth of a gangster nation / Rich Cohen.

  • The story of Albert Hicks, the most notorious criminal on the New York waterfront, unfolded in the course of three bloody months in the summer before the Civil War.

American predator : the hunt for the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century / Maureen Callahan.

  • Israel Keys was a predator who struck all over the United States. He buried "kill kits"-- cash, weapons, and body-disposal tools-- in remote locations across the country and over the course of fourteen years would fly to a city, rent a car, and drive thousands of miles in order to use his kits. He would break into a stranger's house, abduct his victims in broad daylight, and kill and dispose of them in mere hours. And then he would return home, resuming life as a quiet, reliable construction worker devoted to his only daughter. Callahan examines the chilling, nightmarish mind of a relentless killer-- and the limitations of traditional law enforcement. 

The Queen : the forgotten life behind an American myth / Josh Levin.

  • Biography of a career criminal named Linda Taylor, the woman who inspired Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" mythology of that started in the 70s. Yes, she did scam welfare and food stamp benefits, but she also scammed a whole lot more. Levin, a reporter for Slate "presents Linda Taylor not as a parable for anything grand, but as a singular American scoundrel who represented nothing but herself." (For more information we recommend Sam Dolnick's review of this book in the New York Times). 

Gotti's boys : the Mafia crew that killed for John Gotti / Anthony M. DeStefano.

  • [I]n his short reign as the head of the Gambino crime family, John Gotti wracked up a lifetime of charges from gambling, extortion, and tax evasion to racketeering, conspiracy, and five convictions of murder. He didn’t do it alone. ... Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anthony M. DeStefano takes you inside Gotti’s inner circle to reveal the dark hearts and violent deeds of the most remorseless and cold-blooded characters in organized crime. Men so vicious even the other Mafia families were terrified of them.

Chasing Cosby : the downfall of America's dad / Nicole Weisensee Egan.

  • Bill Cosby's decades-long career as a sweater-wearing, wholesome TV dad came to a swift and stunning end on April 26, 2018, when he was convicted of drugging and sexually assaulting one of more than 60 women who have come forward to accuse him of similar crimes. Egan shares her firsthand account of Cosby's 13-year run from justice. She tells us how Cosby planned and executed his crimes, and how Hollywood alliances and law enforcement knew what Cosby was doing but did nothing to stop him. She also explores the cultural and social issues that influenced the case. 

Rectify : the power of restorative justice after wrongful conviction / Lara Bazelon.

  • The author appeared at a recent event to talk about her book at the Mechanic Institute. Bazelon puts a face to the growing number of men and women exonerated from crimes that kept them behind bars for years, sometimes decades, and that devastate not only the exonerees but also their families, the crime victims who mistakenly identified them as perpetrators, the jurors who convicted them, and the prosecutors who realized too late that they helped convict an innocent person.

Formation : a woman's memoir of stepping out of line / Ryan Leigh Dostie.

  • Sadly this is not the first story of a woman in the military who suffers from a disbelieving command hierarchy after she reports a rape by another soldier. Dostie finds herself fighting through her isolation amid the challenges of an unexpected war. What follows is a sweepingly beautiful, riveting, and inspiring story of one woman's extraordinary journey to prove her worth, physically and mentally, in a world in which the odds are stacked against her.

(Note: all summaries in this post come from publisher descriptions and/or dust jackets except for The Queen, adapted in part from the NYT book review).

Posted on Aug. 19, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

New in Chess Yearbooks have arrived

At long last we have our 2018 back volumes of New in Chess Yearbook, plus the 2 that have come out in 2019 so far (vols. 126-131). The Library apologizes for the delay and we are pleased to announce that all volumes will be on the new books table by the week of August 19th. 

Chess players will find of particular interest vol. 129 "Mamedyarov's Surprise," a survey based on Shakhriyar Mamedyarov's use of an old line of the Ruy Lopez in the 5th round of the Olympiad in Batumi (p.105). We had the good fortune to have Mamedyarov and Rauf Mamedov give a clocked tandem simul at the Mechanics Institute on August 7th. 

To place a hold on one of these books, members please log into your library account then click here. To select a volume to place a hold on start by clicking on the "Request this item" button, then at the last step the system will ask you which volume you want.  

Vol. 126, 2018, Anish Giri sovereign in the 1.c4 labyrinth.

Vol. 127, 2018, Caruana crushes Winawer with 9.h4!? from YB 126

Vol. 128, 2018, McShane paints the Ruy Lopez in KID colours

Vol. 129, 2018, Daredevil win by Shakh in the Open Ruy Lopez

By the way, in addition to the New in Chess Yearbook we have received a donation of a large number of new chess books. You can expect to see these on the new books table on the 3rd floor in the weeks to come. Be sure to check out Cherilyn's new books blog posts for new chess titles as these often fly off the new books table soon after they arrive. 


Posted on Aug. 14, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Here be dragons! Or not. -- Science Fiction Update July 2019

We need to weed our collection quite aggressively in order to make room for new books. This brings up some questions that only our science fiction and fantasy reading members can answer. We have noticed authors whose books have fallen out of popularity -- earlier titles have lots of circulations (no one tracks the identity of the borrowers, we only know that some person(s) borrowed a given title x number of times) but then interest in those titles drops. We have seen interest in science fiction and fantasy series die off recently. 

For example, we have noticed that any book with the word "Dragon" in the title does not budge. MI members used to check out books of "Tolkienian" fantasy -- elves, dwarves, magic and armoured knights armed with swords, etc. But not for some years. For example, our books by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., who writes in the "sword and sorcery" fantasy genre, used to circulate quite well. Then around 2015 interested dropped off. Did the readers who enjoyed his books leave? We've seen barely a trickle of interest in Modesitt's work. Due to lack of interest in the 4th books of his Corean Chronicles series, Alector's Choice, we never purchased the remaining 4 titles in that series. Does anyone read Modesitt anymore? Does anyone care whether we remove all of his books from our collection? Please let us know ([email protected]). 

"Space opera" has not fared much better. Writer Alastair Reynolds book Redeption Ark enjoyed quite a lot of popularity, but then our readers dropped that title along with all his others around 2015. His most recent book that we have, Slow Bullets, has had lackluster performance, although the last time someone borrowed it was 2018. Does anyone care whether we remove all of his books from our collection?

What science fiction and/or fantasy books would you like to read? Are there authors you look for? What subgenre would interest you most? For fantasy:

  • Magical realism
  • Alternate history 
  • Epics
  • Ghosts, vampires, demons
  • Sword and sorcery
  • Other? 


How about Science Fiction subgenres? 

  • Apocalyptic / post apocalyptic
  • Astronauts/Exploration
  • Dystopia
  • Space Operas
  • Star Wars/Star Trek 
  • Steampunk
  • Time travel
  • Other?

Please let us know  ([email protected]). 

Posted on Jul. 22, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Chernobyl: Real vs. Reel

In the autumn of 1986 my mother called me. We typically spoke over the phone about once or twice a month during this time. During this call the subject quickly came around to the recent nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. "Steven," my mother asked me, "what the hell happened at Chernobyl?" She asked me that question for a specific reason: my brother is the writer, but I am the historian. I studied Russian history for 2 years in the Ph.D. program at Columbia University before switching to its library school. While I attended library school part-time I worked full-time in Slavic book acquisitions in the university's library, and also rented a room in an apartment from a Russian emigre. From this circumstance I found myself doubly "linked in" to the Russian emigre community in Washington Heights. I lost count of the hours I spent sitting at the kitchen table of a Russian family, drinking tea and eating cookies* while listening to them tell me about life in the Soviet Union. They knew I had an interest in their history, that I respected and wanted to hear about their lived experience, and they shared their stories with me. My mother knew this, and therefore asked me to explain the inexplicable to her. 

I knew the analogy that would work. Shortly after her younger son left for college, my mother decided to go to college too. She graduated a year or two after I did. She and I did not always give our best effort for every class. We had that in common. My mother in particular detested some of her required classes and typically did a little as possible to muddle through them. 

"You know, Mom, when you're taking a class you don't like and really do not want to spend much time on the term paper?" 

"Yes, of course." 

"Well, you know how some papers you are really just 'whipping it off' and not really doing all the work that, ideally, you should?" 

My mother laughed and admitted that yes, indeed, she had written more than one such paper.

"Now, try to imagine an entire society, a whole Nation/State, with almost everyone, including the people who run nuclear power plants, everyone just 'whipping it off.' "

Long silence. Finally, my mother said, in an unusually hushed voice, "You mean to tell me that at Chernobyl, they were just ..." Her voice trailed off. 

"Yes, they were doing a safety check the same way that you crank out a C paper in a class you don't care about, just to get it out of your stack of crap you don't want to do but have to anyway. They were "whipping off" a safety check and the reactor blew." 

The recent HBO mini-series about the Chernobyl disaster captures life in the 1980s in the Soviet Union in a very hit and miss sort of way. Some details they got right, but the essence of Soviet society and the underlying causes of the nuclear meltdown they completely mischaracterized. 

Masha Gessen noticed many of the same disconnections from the reality of life in the Soviet Union as I did. She describes these in her excellent column in the June 4, 2019 New Yorker magazine What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong. In particular, she points out the final episode's courtroom scene as an example of something that would never have happened -- the "hero" delivers a cathartic (for us) speech about truth and lies that does not look even remotely believable if you understand that place and time. For me, I remember what many of my emigre friends told me they used to say to each other, often in response to small talk questions about their jobs: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."  To paraphrase dialog from the mini-series, this should be "printed on [The Soviet Union's] money." Gessen and I agree that this "un-work un-ethic," not the mountain of lies that the communist bureaucracy cranked out, best explains how Chernobyl not only happened, but had to happen. Nuclear power in the hands of a nation like the USSR is like giving a live hand grenade to a monkey -- you know the explosion will happen, it's only a matter of where and when. Unfortunately for television docudramas, this does not make for great dramatic conflict, truth-telling heroes, rousing speeches about truth and lies or a satisfying narrative. By making Chernobyl about lies, the HBO mini-series missed the actual truth: that the State's official lies served only as a threadbare blanket to conceal the rotting corpse of a damaged society and its failed state, not as the primary cause of the failures.

In addition to Gessen's article above, to learn more about the Chernobyl disaster you can read the following books we have in the MI Library: 

At the top of Gessen's list of recommended readings we have Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl : The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Alexievich is a historian whose work has close similarity to the books of Cornelius Ryan -- gathering then organizing and presenting personal narratives by the first-hand participants in the events described. We also have in our collection: 

Midnight in Chernobyl : the untold story of the world's greatest nuclear disaster by journalist Adam Higginbotham. 

The truth about Chernobyl by Soviet physicist Grigori Medvedev, published as the regime fell in 1991.

And lastly, we have on order Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by historian Serhii Plokhy.

* Note on Russian hospitality: I met many sweet, kind, gracious and wonderful Russian people during my time living in New York City. Entertaining a guest in a Russian home entails everyone sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea and eating cookies. I discovered that every Russian family has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cookies, and that they have various imaginative and inventive ways they employ to emotionally arm-twist you into eating yet another one. I adopted as my delaying tactic eating half a cookie then holding the remaining half, nibbling on it until I could no longer escape having to take another one from the mountainous pile on the plate in front of me.


Posted on Jun. 10, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Science Fiction Update June 2019

James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of a woman named Alice Sheldon who wrote science fiction in the mid-20th century. She entered the field at a critical time in the development of the genre. Starting in the 19th century, the public school systems in the English speaking world greatly increased literacy, especially in the United States, and with that increase a demand for entertaining fiction. Publishers and writers took advantage of the popularity of exciting, sometimes lurid, stories for the sake of entertainment to produce cheaply made (in more ways than one) fiction, leading to a large output of "pulp fiction," dime novels and penny dreadfuls. What we now call science fiction started in the 19th century as a part of this effort to satisfy the demand for popular entertainment and it's early writers seldom aspired to creating great literature. For a long time many people, including librarians, dismissed science fiction as "kids stuff," and "not really literature." 

In the 1930s a group of science fiction writers, under the guidance of an editor named John Campbell, started to publish stories that departed from stock, two-dimensional characters, nonsensical "science" and simplistic "aliens bad, humans good" plotlines. They succeeded, and their names such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein remain well-known today. The next wave of highly intelligent and creative writers to come along included Harlan Ellison, Urusula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. in the 1960s. These writers used future or distant worlds to examine the social, political and economic changes taking place in the present. Tiptree's and others' writings greatly contributed to breaking science fiction out of the "mold" of its pulp fiction origins, turning it into a genre filled with highly imaginative and intelligent ideas, stories and characters. 

Sheldon worked in Army Intelligence during World War II then joined the CIA for 3 years in the late 1940s. After leaving the CIA she returned to college, completing her education with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, then set about writing. For 10 years no one suspected that James Tiptree, Jr. was not a man. Once her true identity became known, rumors explaining why she used a pseudonym proliferated, one wilder than the next, most having to do with her work for the CIA. In her letters to friends she explained that she only wished to keep her fiction writing separate from her academic work. She selected a male name purposely given her lifelong struggle to work in male-dominated fields. With a male name people would read her words, writers and editors would evaluate her work on its merits.  She was also closeted-bisexual, something she told only a small circle of close friends, including Le Guin. Tiptree and Le Guin may be the first writers to introduce feminist themes into the science fiction genre. (If anyone knows of earlier contributions, please leave a comment on this post -- I would like to know). Sheldon/Tiptree died in 1987. 

In 1991 two women science fiction writers formed The Tiptree Award Foundation, which

... appoints a panel of five jurors to read and discuss among themselves the merits of gender-bending fiction published in the previous year.

At the end of a year of reading and deliberation, the jurors choose the winner(s). The jury’s only charge is to look for science fiction and fantasy that “explores and expands gender.” Each set of jurors refines and re-examines their own definitions of that phrase.

 In the Mechanics Institute Library's efforts to provide our readers with a book collection as diverse as possible, I reviewed the nominees, honorable mentions and winners of the James Tiptree Jr. Awards then ordered the following titles, many of which have already arrived. To find out more about a title listed below (and/or place a hold on it), click on the link to read the summary in the Mechanics Institute's online catalog. 

Honorable mentions of 2017 and 2018

The black tides of Heaven and The red threads of fortune by JY Yang. (The first two books in the author's Tensorate series).

Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff. (The first in the author's The Red Abbey chronicles series)

An excess male, in which author Maggie Shen King examines the effects of China's two-child policy from the perspective of 2030. 

Sodom Road exit by Amber Dawn features a protagonist haunted by a queer ghost. 

Sovereign by April Daniels, the second in the "Nemisis" series, a young adult novel about a trans superhero. You may want to wait for the first book, Dreadnought, presently on order.

In The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai, women in a dystopian future battle a plague that kills more men than women. 

Chercher La Femme by L. Timmel Duchamp has virtual reality, friendly aliens and an all female planet. 

Glittership. Year 2, a science fiction anthology that contains 30 short stories and poems. According to the jury "these all have queer themes and characters. “The Little Dream” by Robin M. Eames (in which a character wears a t-shirt that reads “IN SPACE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU INSIST THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS”) and “Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings” by Andrea Tang are particularly recommended. A wonderful variety of stories and a great way to find authors you want to read more of."


The winner of the 2018 Tiptree Foundation Award is

A short-story you can read for free online: They will dream in the garden.

The website of the Tiptree Foundation lists the winners and honorable mentions from 1991 to the present.

(The photograph in this post shows Tiptree with her husband, Huntington Sheldon, circa 1945). 

Posted on Jun. 1, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

The Mueller Report

The library has purchased a print copy of The Mueller Report : the final report of the Special Counsel into Donald Trump, Russia, and collusion; as issued by the Department of Justice. We realize that the political situation regarding the report and its findings is changing rapidly. Some redacted portions of the report in our print copy may be unredacted later. To help our members keep up, we also have added two electronic versions (both accessible via This link to the online version of the Mueller Report in our online catalog). We will add links to "less redacted" versions as they become available.

Posted on May. 30, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Science Fiction Update

Science fiction has plenty of book series. The Mechanics Institute Library has recently acquired a few new ones and added to some popular ones.

Fire Logic, the first book of Laurie J. Marks's tetrology "Elemental Logic," has proven so popular with members that we have acquired the next 2 books: Earth Logic (book 2) and Water Logic (book 3). The fourth book, Air Logic, is due this June. 

We've also purchased the next 2 titles of the "Themis files" series by Sylvain Neuvel, continuing Sleeping Giants with Waking Gods then Only Human

John Scalzi continues his "Interdependency" series that started with The Collapsing Empire. The next installment, The Consuming Fire, is already on the new books shelf. 

Rebecca Roanhorse published the very popular Trail of Lightning last year. Her following installment in "The Sixth World" series, Storm of Locusts, just arrived at the library in April. 

Pierce Brown's latest addition to his "Red Rising" novels converts what was a "trilogy" into a "saga" with a fourth novel: Iron Gold. This one received very high ratings from over 28 thousand people on GoodReads. 

We have started a couple of new series as well: 

Holly Black's "Folk of the Air" fantasy series has enjoyed rave reviews. We have acquired both the first title, The Cruel Prince, as well as the follow up, The Wicked King.

Those who are fans of Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series will love the new Mike Resnick book The Master of Dreams, the first of his planned dreamscape trilogy

Elizabeth Bear, author of the popular Range of Ghosts, has started a new series called "White Space" with the debut title: Ancestral Night.

Posted on Apr. 30, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Iconography: an irreverent introduction

I have always had an amateur's interest in fine art. I never took a course in art appreciation but I have learned as much as I can from books and from a friend with an M.F.A. who acts as my personal docent when we visit museums together. I always wondered about paintings, from medieval times to the present, that included numerous objects for no apparent reason or people making unusual (to me, anyway) gestures. What do they mean? Why did this artist include a broken wheel in this painting? How do we know that baby is Jesus? What's the funny-looking "thing" that looks like a feather duster that you see people holding in old paintings all the time? You can find answers to these and lots more questions in the Colons' book, newly arrived at the Library. The objects in paintings that mystify many of us in the 21st century had symbolic meanings very commonly known centuries ago, in other words: iconography. The authors include helpful lists in the appendices. But the real fun comes in the picture by picture descriptions and explanations that make sense out of scores of paintings included in this book (and by extension, hundreds or thousands of others not inlcuded in the book that contain the same iconography). They limited their selection of the art works to those that have big, high definition graphics on the World Wide Web easily found with a DuckDuckGo or Google image search of the artist's name and title of the painting. This way they kept the size (and cost) of the book small and inexpensive. 

The whimsical writing makes this far from the usual dry academic tome. For example, to explain a painting that includes a man incongruously standing with a hatchet sticking out of his head they write: 

The painting of St. Peter the martyr is a stunner. In fact, he looks quite stunned as well. A 13th century Dominican priest from Verona, he was assassinated -- you guessed it -- with a hatchet through the skull. He was fast tracked to sainthood in only 11 months -- an ecclesiastical record.

Check out this book for more of the same -- plus the answers to my questions above. 

Posted on Feb. 7, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

First Abraham Flexner revolutionized medical education in the U.S. Then he founded the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. His seminal essay about “useless” knowledge continues to stand as the most eloquent defense of primary research. The companion essay by the Institute’s current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, provides fascinating historical background on Flexner and his views on the relationship between research and public policy.

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.


Posted on Sep. 3, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

The Hawkline Monster : a Gothic Western

Richard Brautigan spent his most productive years as a writer in San Francisco, although he was born in Tacoma Washington. He once admitted that all he could do at all well was hunt and write. His writing always reflected his life in the American West and its frontier character. With The Hawkline Monster : a Gothic Western he takes the western genre, scrambles it with horror, then adds his trademark dark humor and imagination, resulting in one the best 20th century novels most people have never heard of. The last 5 or so pages elevates this from just an amusing story to a great novel.

For a more expansive description and critique of Brautigan’s work, see The Poetry Foundation’s biography:

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.

Posted on Sep. 1, 2018 by Steven Dunlap