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Staff Picks/DVD Selections

Staff Picks: Sustenance for Body & Mind

Last month, Mechanics’ Institute staff members explored love and longing, and this month we’re ruminating on sustenance and fellowship. We will select some of our favorite cookbooks, from the aspirational to the eminently practical. Come check out our staff picks on the second floor to see what we’re cooking. There will also be plenty of delicious fiction on display to satiate your literary appetites.

Taryn recommends The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola (FIC)

Recently released from prison, Florent Quenu struggles to forge a new life with his brother, living in the newly rebuilt Les Halles Market. Florent is soon caught up in a dangerous maelstrom of food and politics within the huge labyrinthine market. Amid intrigue among the fishmonger, the charcutière, the fruit girl, and the cheese vendor, we see the dramatic difference between “fat and thin” (the rich and the poor) and how the widening gulf between them strains a city to the breaking point.

Heather recommends Modern Art Desserts : Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art by Caitlin Freeman (641.86 F855)

I love looking at art but I can't decide what I miss most now that SFMOMA is closed for reconstruction: the permanent collection on display, or eating dessert at the rooftop cafe. This book will give you a chance to try your hand at making the Mondrian cake. Good luck, and if your efforts are successful, be sure to share the results with your friendly Mechanics' Institute Library staff!

Diane recommends The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman (641.5 P437)

I am a cookbook snob and for me to purchase a cookbook it has to have three things: beautiful photography, mouth-watering sounding recipes that I believe are within my capabilities, and accessible/everyday ingredients.  The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook was a by-product of The Smitten Kitchen blog ( which my daughter introduced me to a few years ago.  The chef/author, Deb Perelman, creates and records her recipes in a tiny New York City apartment kitchen.  I can relate - my first NYC apartment had a kitchen so small that it had no drawers (which I realized on the day I moved in)! Every recipe I have tried from her cookbook has been delicious and even resembles her beautifully photographed creations. A few other cookbooks that meet my stringent prerequisites are Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery (641.5944 K29b) and Salad for Dinner: Simple Recipes for Salads That Make a Meal by Tasha DeSerio (641.83 D451).

Posted on Feb. 27, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Love is in the Air

It’s February, so that means love is in the air, right? The lovers mythos surrounding the obscure Saint Valentine may have been created by Chaucer & friends in 14th century England, but the damage is done: we tend to get just a little bit twitterpated around February 14th.

This month, Mechanics’ Institute staff will be choosing some little bundles of love for you to peruse – but we’re not limiting it to romantic love, so even if you would like nothing better than to avoid romance and romance novels, you might be surprised at the literary Valentines we’re adding to our staff picks display this month. Of course, there will be plenty of love stories too. We’re human after all, and what is more human than the relentless pursuit of love?

Diane recommends: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (FIC)

The story sounds like a trite remake of a 1940's tearjerker - down and out girl looking for a job, handsome and successful young man in a terrible accident, she takes a job as his caregiver and they fall in love.  However, this is not your classic Hollywood film with a syrupy soundtrack and a necessarily happy ending.  It is a heartfelt and heartwarming book that makes the reader think about what "to love" someone really means.

Anrey recommends: Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh (Graphic Novel)

This heart-wrenching coming-of-age story reminds us that pain and loneliness can often accompany the pursuit of true love.

Taryn recommends: Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies (FIC)

What can you learn from one of the world's most notorious prostitutes? A lot about love and dedication. A rich story set in Gold Rush San Francisco, settle in for a good long read!

Chris recommends: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (FIC)

Yunior, a character familiar to fans of Diaz's Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, opens this book on the defensive; "I'm not a bad guy" he says. In the stories that follow, we're given a quick, funny, and frank tour of Yunior's life. Beginning with a relocation from Santo Domingo to New Jersey in the middle of the winter, Yunior looks up to his older brother, Rafa, while his father busies himself with work. Rafa, who is an energetic charmer but moves too quickly and erratically to honor the responsibilities of his family and girlfriend, may not be the best model for Yunior. Following in his brother's footsteps, Yunior begins a series of romantic relationships that have him uttering the opening line more than a few times. In a fast paced and conversational mix of English and Spanish that is heavy on creative use of swearwords, Yunior leaves no detail or frustration unaired. While the reader may tire of Yunior's unarguably Bad Guy behavior, his empathic development, as slow as it may be, ultimately reveals a sympathetic person.

Posted on Jan. 31, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Films We Love


Chilly winter nights are good for cozying up with a hot mug of something decadent to drink and watching a really good movie. To get you geared up for the announcement of the 2013 Academy Award nominees in January, the Mechanics’ Institute Library staff selects some of our favorite films in the collection. Here are a few recommendations to whet your appetite:

Craig recommends Johnny Guitar.

Saloon owner Vienna battles the local townspeople, headed by Emma, the sexually repressed, lynch-happy female rancher out to frame her for a string of robberies. Johnny Logan is a guitar-strumming drifter, once in love with Vienna, and is offered a job in her saloon. Many consider Nicholas Ray's epic one of the most original westerns of all time.

Bobbie recommends Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.

One of my all time favorite 80’s movies, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains presents an all-star cast including a 15-year-old Diane Lane, 13-year-old Laura Dern, and an impressive punk rock line-up featuring members of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Tubes. The movie follows Corrine Burns (Lane) and her newly formed band as they tag along on a failing rock tour and rise to stardom thanks to incidental media coverage when she declares their motto “We don’t put out”.  This movie has been cited by numerous bands as a major influence of the female punk rock movement of the 90’s. Beyond the accolades, The Fabulous Stains is a fun, entertaining, rock movie with lots of great music and performances.

Chris recommends Paprika.

My personal favorite of Satoshi Kon's animes, Paprika follows the theft of a powerful device originally intended for psychiatrists to enter their patients’ dreams. When used carefully and delicately, care can be delivered in a revolutionary manner. But when used maliciously, subjects’ dreams can be so strongly altered that repercussions take place in their waking life. Taking advantage of the animated medium, the dreams are stunningly realized; saturated with color, detail and instantly memorable music. While fans of Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky's films will surely to enjoy the story line's twisting logic, Kon's fondness for honoring dream logic as much as rationality, similar to that of David Lynch or Philip K. Dick, makes Paprika uniquely entertaining. Sophisticated, intense and dazzling, a fine film for both anime fans and novices to the genre.

Heather recommends Amelie.

Mechanics’ has a fantastic collection of films in foreign languages. Amelie is a French fairytale about a lonely girl who follows her curiosities and engages in life with a playful (and sometimes mischievous) delight. Watch all of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films when you’ve finished with this one, especially The City of Lost Children, Delicatessen, and Micmacs.

Diane recommends Rear Window.

This Alfred Hitchcock classic features Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly (in their prime). While an injured and bored Stewart recovers from a broken leg, he snoops on a neighboring apartment house through binoculars and thinks he may have witnessed a murder. If I am channel-surfing and pass this movie, I always watch it until the end!

We will also choose books that might inspire you to watch more films, or to watch your favorites in a deeper way. As always, we will also display some of our favorite fiction in case you’d prefer to spend your indoor evenings keeping warm with a good book. Visit the Staff Picks display on the second floor, and check back often. We will be refilling with new titles throughout the month.





Posted on Jan. 6, 2014 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Joy


The holidays are upon us. Joyful? Yes! But this season can also be a little stressful, at least if you’re hosting a dinner party (or attending about 15 of them in the next four weeks).

In December, Mechanics’ Institute staff  have selected a few books to help you unwind, and maybe remind you that it’s not what you give (or get!) that makes for holiday cheer. To get a jumpstart on a New Year’s Resolution to enjoy the moments that make up each day, staff will be recommending books on what makes us relax, feel exhilarated, and generally enjoy life. You’re likely to find a few books that inspire you to value your own pleasure, so check out the Staff Picks display on the second floor and see if you find a book that delights you.

Andrea recommends Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (FIC)

Pym’s characters are always sitting down to a cup of tea, cooking a little supper, reading a book before bed, having non-earth shattering misunderstandings and romances that always end happily. The humor is subtle and dry and can be applied to many communities where people rub elbows with each other over a period of time.

Deb recommends The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (FIC)

Even though we have no children in our home, every Christmas we read The Polar Express. This magical book transports the reader to the innocence of childhood when Santa Claus, the North Pole and elves were part of what we believed in and looked forward to all year long. You can also check out the DVD, though I've not ever been able to watch it. The book is too precious to me and I cannot imagine that a video could do it justice!

Mechanics’ Institute Library has many holiday-themed children's books and films. Share them with a child in your life, or just enjoy them yourself!

Taryn recommends Martin Eden by Jack London (FIC)

If you can put this book down you are not human! This novel beautifully details the extraordinary evolution of a writer -- a must read for all locals.

Heather recommends How We Live Our Yoga: Teachers and Practitioners on How Yoga Enriches, Surprises, and Heals Us personal stories edited by Valerie Jeremijenko (181.4 H84)

I recently re-started yoga practice after realizing that my life contained more stress and less calm when I wasn’t practicing. This book of essays by fourteen different practitioners is a reminder that we are all beginners and there are myriad ways to “live our yoga”, whether our calendars are full or clear.

Posted on Dec. 2, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Short & Sweet


November marks the beginning of the holiday season: parties, friends & family, parties, gifts, and (did I mention?) parties! We, at the Mechanics’ Institute Library, understand. You don’t have time to read War and Peace (1412 pages) or Infinite Jest (1079 pages) during the holidays. Though both novels come highly recommended by members of the staff, most of us don’t have time to read them at the moment either.

But just because the days are both shorter and fuller, it doesn’t mean that we can do without reading for a whole season! Mechanics’ Institute staffers are happy to recommend our favorite short works in November: stories! essays! novellas! poetry!

Come check out the staff picks display on the second floor and see if any of our must-read short works strike your fancy. Here’s just a taste of what’s in store:


Jeremy recommends Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh (294.3 N57)

With the holiday rush upon us, this book is a good reminder to slow down and breathe. Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on peace and meditation are a great introduction to mindfulness and applicable ways to live a more peaceful life.

Chris recommends Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee (333.72 M17)

David Brower, the founder of the Sierra Club, is profiled in three separate essays, where he is joined by the author and a trio of his opponents. Brower meets with a miner, a developer, and the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in their respective sites of conflict. Here, they argue, agree, bond, and frustrate one another. Originally published in the New Yorker, this collection serves as an introduction to the personality and politics of Brower himself, a portrait of some of America's most unique and gorgeous landscapes, and as a detailed study in the conflicts and connections of differing environmental ideologies.

Heather recommends Bartleby the Scrivener (found in Shorter Novels of Herman Melville) by Herman Melville (FIC)

If all you know of Melville is Moby Dick, Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street will be a surprise to you. Although Bartleby never wakes up as a bug, his tale is reminiscent of Kafka’s absurdist work. This novella has many of my favorite things in literary characterization: an unreliable narrator, a protagonist whose motivations are wholly unclear, and a cast of supporting characters as strange as the main characters. This is one of those stories you can read in a sitting, but it stays with you for days.

Diane recommends The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (FIC)

A short, charming and humorous novel of only 120 pages, the author poses the question "what would happen if the Queen of England became a voracious reader late in life"?  One day, Queen Elizabeth follows one of her Corgis into a mobile library parked adjacent to Buckingham Palace and discovers the wonders of the written word.  Soon she is neglecting state business so that she can finish the latest novel!  Bennett imagines, in believable detail, the effect that the Queen's newfound passion for books has on her public and private affairs.

Posted on Oct. 31, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: A Dog's Tale


San Francisco residents love their dogs!  One only has to quickly survey the city’s sidewalks, especially on the weekends, and see the numerous dogs taking their humans out for a walk to know this for a fact.  The Mechanics’ Institute staff reflects the city’s passion for their pets by selecting their favorite dog tales for this month’s Staff Picks display.  Enjoy!

Deb recommends Thunder Dog: the True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero by Michael Hingson (eBook only)

Ever wonder what it was like to be in the World Trade Center when the first jet hit?  Michael Hingson tells a riveting and inspiring story of his escape along with his trusted guide dog, Roselle.  Born blind, but seeking no sympathy, he weaves this unforgettable experience into his life and lessons learned along the way.  A fast read that is truly a page turner.


Bobbie recommends The Dogs Who Found Me by Ken Foster (636.7 F75)

Ken Foster describes his life as a part-time animal rescuer and tells the stories of a few of the dogs that have made an impact on his life.  Each chapter is dedicated to one dog, how he found them, their sad tales, and the rescue and re-homing attempts.  Not all of the stories have happy endings but all left an impression and give Foster the inspiration to carry on with his mission of saving lost, lonely, and abandoned dogs.

Craig recommends The Complete West Highland White Terrier by John T. Marvin (636.7 M39w)

As the guardian of one Westie (Bella) at the moment, and two Westies (Emma and Chester) in the past, I found this book to be very informative.  It covers the history of this breed of terrier and what characteristics they were bred for.  There are plenty of photographs in the book, which make this title particularly interesting to peruse.  In the Library’s “bow-wow” collection are many other books about different breeds of terriers written by this same author.  You will want to peruse the Library collection at the Dewey Decimal class number “636.7” for other books on dogs, including ones that cover the day to day care of these wonderful companions.

Heather recommends The Dog of the Marriage: Stories by Amy Hempel (FIC)

Amy Hempel’s stories are so often about loss; one would presume that her work is of interest only to the naturally melancholy.  Not so!  You’ll be surprised at the catharsis the author’s sense of humor brings to her subject matter, whether it’s suicide, infidelity, a dead pet, natural disaster, or, even, the occasional love story.  She is subtle, and she is gracious, a masterful storyteller whose characters will stay with you long after you’ve read the few words Hempel has used to tell their stories.

Posted on Oct. 2, 2013 by Diane Lai

Staff Picks: September is Beach San Francisco

The September staff picks theme is Beach Reads.

You know: the kind of reading you do solely for pleasure. Sometimes, pleasure-reading is of the guilty variety, and sometimes it’s a luxurious read with no practical application whatsoever. A so-called beach read has the perfect balance of entertainment and engagement, inspiring that crucial suspension of disbelief in the author’s make-believe (or believe it or not – true!) world.

The Mechanics’ Institute staff has selected everything from the classic page-turner to books with sentences so complex and lovely you want to linger over every one of them. Whether you choose a beautifully-illustrated graphic novel or a gripping memoir, we hope you’ll find something on this month’s display of our favorites that strikes your fancy.

Jeremy recommends Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk (294.39 H368) by Shozan Jack Haubner

A 30-something monk living at a Buddhist temple in Southern California, Haubner's writing is self-deprecating at times, insightful at others, and often both. These personal essays cover a lot of ground from Haubner's experiences in monastic life to what drove him to leave the secular world. There's enough here to make you laugh, cry, and reflect about your own follies in life.

Diane recommends And the Mountains Echoed  by Khaled Hosseini

From the author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini tells the touching tale of the enduring love between an Afghan brother and sister who are torn apart at a young age. This story, which spans many decades, explores the sacrifices that poor and desperate families must make in this war torn country to enable their own to survive. Read the final chapters with a tissue box by your side!

Deb recommends Beach Music  by Pat Conroy

Spanning three generations on two continents, Beach Music weaves together themes of loss and family loyalty with seemingly disparate historical events and locations (Rome, the rural South, the Vietnam War, the Holocaust). Despite its scope, this novel is a page-turner, which is really saying something about a book which contains 768 pages!

Heather recommends Fight Club  by Chuck Palahniuk

A classic tale of love, revolution, and beating your friends to a bloody pulp; if you’ve seen the film so many times that you forget how the book ends, it’s time to read it and fall in love/hate with Tyler Durden all over again. If this is your first time, I envy you the mayhem mingled with discovery that characterizes this, Palahniuk’s masterwork. And don’t forget the first rule of fight club…

Posted on Sep. 3, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Mysteries and Thrillers

Although summer isn't exactly beach weather in our fair city, I still like to spend the summer reading books that are, above all, entertaining.  What better fits the bill than a juicy mystery?! If you're like me, you tend to read the same tried-and-true authors, and it can be tough to figure out what, in the vast ocean of mystery stories, is worth the elbow-grease (turning pages that fast can be mildly athletic!) required to finish it.  This is where your friendly Mechanics' Institute staffers come in...

In August, we're recommending our favorite mysteries and thrillers to keep you on the edge of your seat. Here's just a taste of what we're suggesting this month:

Erika recommends Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

Although his ethnicity is half American, Sonchai Jitlicheep is one of the only honest policemen in Bangkok.  He is determined to find the person whose murder weapon - a cobra - managed to catch his partner in the crossfire.  Welcome to Bangkok, where the good guys and the bad guys are almost indistinguishable from one another...

Matt recommends House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first novel approved by Conan Doyle's estate to be included in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and deservedly so. It is rife with Victorian mores (and secrets) and is written in a style faithful to the original Holmes stories. A sequel to this critically lauded novel is expected in October 2014.

Heather recommends Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg mysteries 

If you've been paying attention to my picks, you'll know that I am constantly trying to get you to read books by Fred Vargas. She's a Medieval Historian who also writes nicely plotted (but not too tricky) mysteries that read more like a novel - plenty of character and setting development with a side of criminal pursuit. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is her newest addition to the series, but I recommend that you start from the beginning with The Chalk Circle Man, as these books comprise one cumulative story rather than an episodic series that can be picked up at any juncture.

Posted on Aug. 1, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Civil War Fiction

One hundred fifty years later, Americans are still fascinated by the War Between the States and the personalities that dominated the country at that crucial turning point in our nation’s history. Although the Civil War only lasted for three years (1861-1864), it left 600,000 dead, so many more wounded, plus a defunct infrastructure in the southern states, and a population of people set adrift with little or no social or financial support to advance their right to freedom from brutality at the hands of those who had enslaved them. With limited resources stretched thin, Reconstruction was nearly as daunting an experience as the Civil War itself.

This period in American history continues to capture the attention of scholars and the imagination of writers. In honor of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the conclusion of the Civil War, Mechanics’ Institute staff will be selecting literature from the era, and literature set in the era, which will be displayed on the 2nd floor Staff Picks shelves.

Diane recommends The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

This novel grips the reader with its graphic details and agonizing tale of how a Civil War battle was fought on the plantation of Carrie McGavrick and changed her life forever. Not only did the plantation house become a hospital where countless limbs were amputated, but her lands became the final resting place for 1,500 soldiers. Based on a true story.

Taryn recommends The Civil War Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce, a former Mechanics' Institute member, is truly one of the great writers of the era and his Civil War stories are some of the best of the genre. His war experiences naturally colored the rest of his life, for better and for worse.

Heather recommends Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is a must-read Civil War era novel, set just after the War. Its plot is inspired by the true -- and truly haunting -- story of a woman who escapes from slavery but is relentlessly pursued by a posse of thugs with the force of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 behind them. The book explores the lengths to which we will go to protect those we love from an unbearable fate. It’s a heartbreaking story, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1988).

Posted on Jul. 2, 2013 by Heather Terrell

Staff Picks: Fashion

Whether you love it or despise it, fashion (or anti-fashion, as it were) makes a statement about our values and our mood, both collectively and individually. Take a look at some of the Mechanics’ Institute staff selections for this month and maybe you’ll find that fashion can be a more complex topic of inquiry than you might have thought, with titles such as Fashion and Its Social Agendas: Class, Gender, and Identity in Clothing, and Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. If you’re already fascinated by textiles, fashion, and its accompanying culture, there’s plenty here to whet your appetite for this visual and tactile subject.

Here are a few of our picks:

Taryn selected Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II by Philip Mansel

Why do you think they called him the Sun King? Not because he dressed in black! Learn how fashion has been influenced over time by the whims, desires, and styles of the royal court.

Sharon's picks reflect her interest in knitting:

Nicky Epstein’s Signature Scarves: Dazzling Designs to Knit by Nicky Epstein

Jewelry with a Hook: Crocheted Fiber Necklaces, Bracelets & More by Terry Taylor

Crochet Noro: 30 Dazzling Designs edited by Joy Aquilino, Michelle Bredeson, and Christina Behnke

Make your own! The best way to showcase your individuality is to put your creative skills to work. Making your own jewelry or accessory, such as a scarf or hat, allows total freedom in selecting your colors and fibers that feel good on your skin. If you are a knitter, try Nicky Epstein’s Signature Scarves as a starting point for ideas. Crochet some jewelry, using Jewelry with a Hook by Terry Taylor. For the sheer fun of color, I recommend Crochet Noro, a delightful collection of accessories using one of the best colored yarns available.

Heather chose Jacqueline Kennedy: the White House Years : Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum by Hamish Bowles, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Rachel Lambert Mellon

In this book, the Metropolitan Museum of Art presents images from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum which exhibit the simplicity of Jackie’s inimitable style. This is a collection of lovely photographs to peruse while daydreaming about your own ideal wardrobe.

As usual, we’ll be adding additional titles in fiction and fashion throughout the month, so check in often at the second floor display!

Posted on May. 31, 2013 by Heather Terrell