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Staff Picks/DVD Selections

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

DVD Selections : Summertime

For residents of San Francisco, "summertime" is often a term that describes a series of months rather than a state of weather. Enjoy a reprieve away from the fog and take a trip to the faraway lands full of warmth and sunshine through your home theatre. This month, our second floor DVD display presents our favorite films of the season. This time of year is loved by all, offering freedom from school, vacations to exotic locales, and the magical feeling of long days and warm nights. Below are some representative titles, pulled from our collection, that celebrate the season.


Heather recommends Baseball: a Film by Ken Burns.
For me, summer is all about baseball. Whether you play or watch, Ken Burns will give you your baseball fix in his ten-volume history of the sport. The documentary is made in his signature style: thoroughly researched with lots of primary sources and photographs. Heather also suggests

500 Days of Summer.
This film explores the ways that expectations and realities collide within romantic relationships. It is wry, sweet, occasionally unsettling, and ultimately hopeful. Each of us has likely had one such relationship in our past: one that destroys us, sets us on a path we never expected to follow, or back on the path we should have kept following all along. This is an enjoyable film, just a little bit cotton-candy: perfect either for date night or to watch while eating popsicles alone on the couch.

Craig recommends The Long Hot Summer.
This film, released in 1958, stars Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Orson Welles, plus Angela Lansbury who plays an entertaining minor role. It is based in part on various short stories written by William Faulkner. The plot follows the conflicts of the Varner family after an ambitious drifter arrives in their small Mississippi town. The Varner family patriarch, who owns most of the town and is skeptical of the abilities of his only son to inherit, tries to push the drifter and his daughter into marriage.

Chris proposes Breaking Away.
Despite being surrounded by college students in his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, Dave forgoes further formal education in order to follow his own passions. He had graduated from high school the year before. An avid bicyclist obsessed with professional racing and Italian culture, Dave sets his sights on participating in the Little 500, a campus-held bicycle race. This inspiring film celebrates both Dave's steadfast independence as well as the support of his family and friends.

Posted on Jun. 19, 2014 by Chris Taylor

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

Staff Picks: Literature for the Young (and Young at Heart)

Literature written with children and young adults as its protagonist or its primary audience sometimes takes a backseat to the more “serious” works of adult fiction and verite, but you might be surprised at the sophistication of these books. They’ll make you smile, but they also might make you wince. In any case, they’ll definitely make you think. This month, Mechanics’ Institute staff selects youth-centric fiction that crosses generational lines and is both entertaining and thought-provoking for people of all ages. We will also be selecting nonfiction books related to youth issues. Here are a few selections for this month’s staff picks:

Bobbie recommends The Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins

I'm a sucker for any book, movie, or song that features a strong female character taking a stand. Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games Trilogy, fits the bill. If you haven't yet seen the 2 movies thus far (Hunger Games & Catching Fire) then don't hesitate to read the books first. There's action, suspense, politics, a love triangle (of course), and so much more.

Erika recommends The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

This is a mystery whose title comes from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Silver Blaze”, and is narrated by a 15-year-old “mathematician with some behavioral difficulties" (i.e. an autistic spectrum condition). So wide is its appeal, that this novel was simultaneously published in separate editions for children and adults. It is delightful as well as insightful.

Taryn Recommends The Parents' Guide to Psychological First Aid: Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Predictable Life Crises edited by Gerald Koocher & Annette La Greca

From how to deal with monsters under the bed to those in the schoolyard, sibling rivalries and teenage heartbreaks; this guide offers reassuring advice and comprehensive strategies for crisis management.

Heather recommends It's Complicated : the Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd

The author unpacks familiar myths about teens' use of social media. She asserts that we do disservice to young people when we allow protectionism to hinder their ability to develop their identities and blossom into informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens via their online interactions.

 and, Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler & Maira Kalman

This is the story of Min and Ed: how they met, fell in love, and broke each other’s hearts. Bittersweet, with lovely illustrations, this book reminds us of the rewards we reap and the risks we take when we dare to fall in love.

Posted on Apr. 1, 2014 by Heather Terrell

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